Intelligence Vs. Compassion

I’ve done a lot of thinking on these two ideas over the last year or so.  The western world seems rather divided right now.. democrats vs. republicans.. liberals vs. conservatives.. blue vs. red.. left vs. right.  When you consider how much these individuals agree on, the division seems rather silly.  Yet it persists.  I have no doubt that the existing political system and those within it perpetuate this division for their own gain, but there’s something more to it than that.  They didn’t create that division, they’re just the ones exploiting it.  There’s something that exists beneath that.. something biological.

I wrote an entry a while back on thought vs. emotion.  Introspectively, I could tell that they were two different cognitive processes within my brain.  It led me to suspect that they had different roles within the human experience.  I understood that you couldn’t use emotion to do things like solve math problems or learn languages.  I also understood that happiness wasn’t a logical thought.  Seemed rather likely that the thoughtful part of the brain would pursue happiness while the emotional part of the brain allowed you to enjoy it.

Ironically, a few months later, a friend gave me a book for my birthday that discussed this topic.  The book, A General Thoery of Love, was written by a small team of MDs and PhDs in clinical psychology.  To my surprise, the authors were big fans of poetry, love, their families, and all the other soft stuff you might not associate with a scientific mind.  I must say it was done quite well and taught me a great deal about how the mind works.

One of my biggest takeaways was how obvious evolution was in determining the fundamental structure of the human brain.  The base of our brain is referred to as the reptilian brain and  controls things like your vitals and balance.  This also represents our most base instincts.. things relating to survival like the 4 Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and… reproduction.  What the reptile brain seems to lack though is any sense of compassion.  I was rather surprised to find out that reptiles are known to eat their young.  Apparently the part of the brain that tells us to be kind to our kin didn’t come until afterwards.

After the reptile brain came the limbic brain.  It’s likely that this evolution occurred during the early evolution of mammals.  The theory is that when life made the jump from laying eggs to carrying their young, the brain needed to adapt appropriately.  Mammals were taking a different approach to survival, one which required them to care for their young until they were capable of fending for themselves.  They needed a way to communicate.  They needed to develop a language.  Enter the limbic brain, the emotional center of the human brain today.  The limbic brain was one of facial expressions, touch, sound, and all these other little nuances that allowed mammals to instinctively understand how one another felt.  Not a language in the classic sense, but very much a language nonetheless.

The most recent evolution of the brain is the neocortex.  It would be convenient to say that that the neocortex is unique to humans but it isn’t.  It’s present in great apes, dolphins, elephants, and most other mammals.  What seems to makes humans different is how much of brain’s mass is dedicated to the neocortex and the size of our brain relative to the size of our bodies.  As one might guess, this is the part of the brain is responsible for what we typically consider to be human intelligence: logic, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness.

Effectively, through millions upon millions of years of evolution, our brain has equipped itself for survival, compassion, and intelligence.  In that order.  And yet the vast majority of the human brain is dedicated to its most recent addition: intelligence.  That evolution has happened rather quickly considering how long it took for the other parts of the brain to develop.  Nature rarely does anything by mistake.

I’m grateful for having learned all this because it’s given me a rather useful insight into the difference between thought and emotion.  It’s also shown me how little the general public seems to understand or appreciate how the brain works.  How often will someone talk about how they feel towards something when they’re actually thinking about it?  How often will someone claim to be using their feelings to navigate something abstract?  How often are we asked how we feel when we should be asked what we think?  I suspect there’s something worth observing here.

As someone who prioritizes thoughtfulness, logic, and truth, I’m probably more easily frustrated by this dynamic than others.  As a result, I’ve been thinking about it a fair bit and have noticed something worth sharing.  Throughout the course of recorded history, I’ve noticed a shift from emotional to intelligent.  I’m unsure if it’s a result of an ongoing biological evolution in the brain, or a gradual appreciation for what intelligence allows us to do.  Realistically, it’s probably both.  If I were to guess, natural selection favors intelligence.

Religion might be the easiest example here.  Religion has existed in some shape or form for about as long as human civilization.  Our brains are programmed to identify patterns, and once we do, we can’t help but use our imaginations to assign meaning to them.  As soon as we were able to recognize the significance of things like the sun and stars, we couldn’t help but try to tie them into one grand narrative.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why religion is such a complex topic.. perhaps in some way, it serves as a chronology of intelligence vs. compassion.

There was a point where religion was about community and worship.. this general idea that if you were kind and compassionate to each other, your god would be kind and compassionate to you.  Over time, intelligence allowed us to realize that if we were kind and compassionate to each other, that was probably all we needed.  In that time, god went from an individual who was supposed to be loved or feared, to something much more abstract.  Since then, religion has become less about worship and more about philosophical teachings relating to morality.  Unfortunately for these religions, they often attributed their teachings to the word of god rather than what they most likely were: a reflection of how humanity understood morality at that point in history.  As a result, we were put in a position where humanity’s collective understanding of morality was evolving and god’s wasn’t.  How could that be.  Something wasn’t right.

As the centuries went by, the intellectual crowd kept coming up with better and better reasons to stray from religion.  The politics, the corruption, the lack of evidence, the logical fallacies, the tribalism… it just looked like a big pile of nope.  Even the renaiisance experienced a big shift from religion to the sciences.  And now, in the 21st century, religion looks to be as irrelevant as ever.  The world’s brightest minds are notoriously non-religious.  The vast majority of people STEM careers are non-religious.  The vast majority of business and industry leaders are non-religious.  The vast majority of recognized philosophers are non-religious.  The only leaders that I can think of who tend to be religious are political leaders.  As their actions tend to show, it’s a function of votes and job security more than loyalty to the cause.

The better we get at using the intelligent part of our brain, the better we get at discerning the difference between real and not real.  As we get better at discerning between real and not real, truth and reality become increasingly important to us.  As truth and reality become increasing important to us, the fictions of religion becomes much less attractive.  While I think this movement away from religion is justified if not an essential part of our evolution, we should be mindful not to throw away the baby with the bath water.  Religion was among the first establishments to champion the ideas of kindness, community, and morality.  Those ideas are worth bringing with us to where ever we go next.

When I think about where we are now and where we go next, I can’t help but think that computers are rather central to the conversation.  When I think about how computers were designed from the beginning, I can’t help but think that they were designed as an extension of our neocortex.  Computers are logical by nature.  If a program has a line of code which contains a logical fallacy, it creates an error.  And while our computers inch towards levels of artificial intelligence that rival our own, there’s an obvious absence of emotion or survival instincts.  This idea that one of humanity’s most significant creations is an extension of one of our most significant evolutionary advantages…. doesn’t strike me as a coincidence.

I’ve been thinking about writing a book for a couple year now.  It’s working title is the Vulcan Republic.  The idea is a mash-up between Plato’s Republic and the Vulcan philosophies from Star Trek.  One takes place in the past, using logic in search of how one would create a Utopian society.  The other takes place in the future where a species just like humanity embraced logic and created that utopia.  Considering the path that we’ve taken over the course of our evolution, is this so unlikely?  Is it so far fetched that intelligence is our guiding star?

MBTI helped me understand how strong the division is between thinkers and feelers.  I know this all too well as the feelers tend to get upset with me for thinking too much and feeling too little.  But then I ask them why I should feel more and think less, and they don’t have a reason.  They just feel that way.  As it turns out, the part of the brain that knows why things happen is the thinking part.  And unfortunately for me, there are statistically more feelers than thinkers.  But I suspect this is changing.  I suspect that every generation, on average, has been more thoughtful than their parents’ generation.  I expect that computers will help kids to learn and embrace logic faster that previous generations.  I expect that the kids growing up today will respond to the highly emotional conversations around current events by learning to be more thoughtful and sensible in the way they discuss ideas with one another.

That’s a future that excites me.  But it doesn’t excite everyone.  The more emotional crowd aren’t always the biggest fan of computers, logic, or intelligence.  I’m often faced with situations where they consider these things to be threatening.  They’ll use words like empty, cold, or robotic.  They seem to assume that intelligence and compassion are binary, that it’s one or the other.  To that point, I think they’re wrong.  I think that we could all be reminded of a simple truth: The most intelligent decision someone can make is a compassionate decision, and the most compassionate decision someone can make is an intelligent decision.

Intelligence and compassion tend to operate like a map and compass.  Intelligence is a tool that helps you read the terrain and understand the most effective way to move from point A to point B.  Compassion is like a compass which might not tell you much about where you are or how to get to where you want to go, but it’ll always give you a sense of direction.  Too often, people will lead with unintelligent compassion, resulting in good intentions but progress in the wrong direction.  Watching the social justice warriors embolden the conservative crowd reminded me of this.  But at the same time, there are those who lead with intelligence and a lack of compassion which lead to productive actions which are counter-productive to humanity’s collective goals.  You don’t have to look much further than Thanos or any bond villain to see how that plays out.  I suspect that for real progress, we need to embrace both, and understand that when we are at our best, they are one and the same.

Nature rarely does anything by mistake… Survive.  Be compassionate.  Be intelligent.

 

EQ vs. IQ

I was reading an article the other day about hiring practices.  The article discussed how people used to hire for IQ, until they learned that it was better to hire for EQ.  An example they gave was how brilliant leaders would rarely fail for a lack of IQ, but failed often for a lack of EQ.  Interesting.  The article went on to talk about how people are now hiring for LQ, or a learning quotient.  Now they’re talking my language.  In an age where your ability to acquire knowledge is worth 10x your ability to retain it… this is the age of learning.

But I digress.

What inspired this entry was the article’s brief comparison between EQ and IQ, suggesting that EQ is a better predictor of job performance than IQ.  I can’t help but disagree with that.  And I can’t help but think that EQ, as the general public understands it, has become overvalued.

Before the Justin Trudeau ran for Prime Minister, I remember hearing all these comparisons to Pierre Trudeau, his dad who had also held the role of Canadian Prime Minister.  The one which stood out for me was from John Oliver and it was about IQ vs EQ.  Where Pierre Trudeau was intellectually brilliant, Justin Trudeau had Emotional Intelligence.  I’ve been paying very close attention to the value of EQ since and I’ve noticed a few things.

I guess the first thing we should do is define the term EQ.  Google defines it as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” It’s the first time I’ve seen that definition and I quite like it.  Actually, I really like it.  Let’s break it down.  The first part is about self-awareness, self-expression, and the ability to control your emotions.  So often, someone who is highly emotional qualifies themselves as having a high EQ but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  If being aware of your emotions and having an ability to control them is part of EQ, that makes a lot of sense.  The second part is about being able to understand the emotions of others while handling those relationships fairly.  This is where things get interesting.

Emotions are part of the human blueprint.  To assume they don’t exist is incorrect.  To assume they can be suppressed indefinitely is unhealthy.  To be aware of, to be in control of, and being able to experience emotions seems to be the philosophy of emotional intelligence and I can get behind that.  Being able to understand the emotions of others, as a non-verbal language… I can get behind that, too.  Where I think the modern understanding of EQ falls apart is when handling interpersonal relationships judiciously.

I’m often criticized for being insensitive.  I’m also recognized as being very honest.

If you were presented with the option of telling someone what they wanted to hear and making them feel good about themselves, or telling them a hard truth and making them feel bad about themselves, which would you choose?

When people discuss individuals with a high EQ, they seem to be discussing people who are skilled at telling people what they want to hear.  It’s like a comedian walking into a room, being able to feel out the crowd, and then delivering the kinda jokes they want to hear.  When you hear what you want to hear, you feel good about yourself, and when you feel good about yourself, you tend to think highly of the person who helped you get there.  That’s what I see when I see EQ being discussed in the mainstream,and it’s wrong.

In the age of thought bubbles and echo chambers, we desperately need to move away from the people who are skilled at telling us what we want to hear.  Those who prioritize telling us what we want to hear are selfish.  For them, our long-term well-being is secondary to feeling good in this moment.  And feeling good in this moment almost always produces what they’re actually looking for.. a date, a sale, a vote.. and even a presidency.  And it’s extremely unhealthy.

There’s a 50 Cent song from back in the day called A Baltimore Love Thing.  50 raps from the perspective of heroin.  If you’d like to know what a relationship looks like when the other person cares more about making you feel good in the moment than your long-term health, that’s it.  And if you’re looking towards the other end of the spectrum, think exercise.  It always sucks at first, and the harder the exercise, the more it burns.  But the more you do it, the better you feel about and the healthier you are.

And this brings me back to my personal struggle, perhaps why this topic is of such interest to me.

Over and over, I’m labelled as low EQ because being capable of understanding and controlling my emotions is perceived as suppressing or not engaging with them.  Over and over, I’m labelled as insensitive because I’m unafraid of delivering the hard truths that help people the most.  Over and over I’m told that I’m not empathetic towards others because I’d rather motivate and inspire than offer blind support.  I’m done accepting those criticisms.

I am not without room for improvement, but I am not without EQ.