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.

 

Truth & Reality, and why it matters (Part 3)

This marks my third attempt at trying to tackle a subject that I started over a month ago.  Part of me feels like it was a failure that I couldn’t do this in one try.  Another part of me feels a bit foolish for thinking I could create any semblance of a summary on the topic (regardless of attempts).  And yet another part of me appreciates that I took a crack at it and for having learned a few things along the way.

For over a month now, I’ve been asking myself why truth and reality matter.  I’ve been reading other peoples’ interpretations of the matter.  I’ve watched TED talks on it.  I’ve talked to friends about it.  And I’ve even revisited uncomfortable conversations where this was the theme.  I keep coming back to the same thing:

If truth and reality don’t matter, what does?

That’s the answer that popped immediately into my head the first time I asked it.  I thought it was a novel response, but also a bit of a cop out.  Answering a question with a question is always a bit cheeky and I was looking for something a bit more concrete anyways.  But I kept coming back to that.  Finally, I thought to explore that direction a bit further.  And as is usually the case, while in the shower, I made progress.

It comes down to this frustration of mine.  When people feel that we’re all entitled to our own truth and our own reality… that we don’t all share a truth and a reality… I lose the ability to connect with them.  The example that comes to mind first is talking to religious fundamentalists about the age of the earth.  The scientific consensus is 4.5 billion years old while various religious texts suggest only a few thousand years old.  If you were to approach one of these individuals and suggest that the earth might be much older than they believe, they might tell you that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs.  If you were to provide them with evidence which challenged their belief, they might respond by saying that god put that there to test their faith.  If you were to provide them with logic which challenged their belief, they might respond by saying god put you there to challenge their faith.  No matter what you might do or say, it only confirms their narrative.  Rather than continuing to try and understand the reality which we all live in, that person has committed to their tribe’s interpretation… one in which I struggle to find common ground.

I suspect this theme is well understood by those who work at mental health institutions with more extreme disorders.  When someone shares a reality with you, there’s an alignment.  With an alignment, things like communication, empathy, intuition, and chemistry are possible;  and can even become effortless.  When that alignment is absent.. I’m picturing a therapist trying to communicate with someone who has severe dementia.  They exist in two different worlds.  Both have a genuine belief that their world is real, but the two exist in vastly different interpretations of the same reality.

Without a shared reality, we lose the ability to connect with one another.  If we were chess pieces, reality would be our chess board.  If you’ve decided that you’re a checker, we’ve likely lost the ability to interact in a meaningful way.  And if too many people start to think they’re playing checkers, we lose the ability to play chess.  Chaos.

But how do we know we’re chess pieces and not checkers?  Isn’t it important to explore alternative explanations?  Is that not a primary purpose of freedom?

The hard truth is that we’ll probably never know for certain whether we’re playing chess or checkers.  The way in which our minds sense, interpret, and then hallucinate our realities, there always exists the potential that this is all a grand dream (or a simulation being run by advanced aliens).  And the hard truth we must accept is that this possibility will always exist and we must understand it to move forward.  Yes it’s a possibility, but one which has only ever existed in theory.  Everything we’ve ever observed would suggest that our reality is real.  Technically it is still an assumption, but it’s the assumption that all other assumptions are built on.  If we can’t agree on this, nothing else that we might agree on would have any basis in reality (because we couldn’t first agree on reality).

I often look at the universe through the lens of building blocks.  Matter has building blocks.  Math and physics have building blocks.  Even logic has building blocks.  When I’m thinking about connecting with old friends, things are seamless.  The building blocks of trust and familiarity are already there.  If I presented a new idea, it would be received fairly.  If the information was good and the logic was sound, my friends would look at that as an opportunity to learn and expand their understanding of the universe.  If it was bad information and faulty logic, they would make fun of me relentlessly.  Either way, this requires us to understand that we all live in our own interpretation of a shared reality.  What truly exists in my reality also exists in theirs and vice versa.  None of our interpretations are entirely accurate or complete, but some interpretations are more accurate and more complete than others.

If I were to try and have a conversation with strangers in which I was challenging their beliefs, one would hope that we would still agree on the basics.  Basics like the laws of physics, the value of logic, and that we all exist within a shared reality.  I would go so far as to say that if we all had a deep understanding of each, we’d be far more constructive in resolving conflicts and learning about the world around us.  Unfortunately, that’s not often the case.  Instead, I’ve found that people prefer to maintain their beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence or reason.  And that’s where you start migrating away from the reality which we all exist in and start to build walls around the interpretation of reality you’ve created for yourself.  While potentially harmless at times, I can’t help but think that this, as a way of life, is deeply counter-productive to humanity’s goals.

 

I think I’ve made a case for why reality matters, but truth isn’t necessarily the same thing.  I’ve been grappling with the difference between a true statement and a universal truth.  Coming up with definitions we can all agree on is important to conversations like these.. otherwise we’re using the same words but talking about different things.  It’s important to have that common ground.  While there are nuanced differences between a universal truth and a true statement, I think that from the right perspective, they’re both the same.

A true statement would be something to the effect of looking down at your shoes, seeing red shoes, and then saying that you are wearing red shoes.  But what if your shoes weren’t red?  What if you had a genetic variance that caused you to see your green shoes as red?  You would see red, meaning that it was a true statement.  But if everyone else saw green, are the shoes not green?  I think this is the nuance between a true statement and a universal truth.  A true statement is an honest recollection of your interpretation of our shared reality while a universal truth is something which is true for everyone, whether or not they realize it.  And I can’t help but think that they are still the same thing.  Something to the effect of when someone makes an inaccurate ‘true statement’, it’s an act which occurs in reality.  If something occurs in reality, that action is true to everyone; ergo, the statement is false but the action is true.

And perhaps therein lies the monumentally confusing feat we’ve been struggling with.  With all of our genetic and cognitive differences, we’re bound to interpret our shared reality differently from one another.  It’s like we’re photographers, all taking pictures of the same scene.  While only one scene exists, we’ll produce a variety of pictures.  Some will be a difference of perspective, some will be a difference of equipment, some will be a difference of technique, and some will come up with their own wacky shit.  That’s not just OK, that should be encouraged.  But we must remind ourselves that our pictures are not the scene.  Our pictures are glimpses of the scene, just as the worlds which our minds project are only glimpses of the world we all live in.

Logic is how we find truth.  Truth is how we find reality.  And perhaps finding reality is a good start to understanding our place within it.

Truth & Reality, and why it matters (Part 1)

Over the last few months, I’ve been bumping heads with the co-founders of my company.  Since I joined, the business has grown beyond their skill-set.  We’re now at the stage where we’re looking to clarify roles and responsibilities and it’s looking like I’ll receive the role of CEO after we close this capital raise.  In that transition though, it’s been challenging for the co-founders to navigate what it means to give up control of their business, for the sake of a better business.

A couple months ago, we brought in an executive coach to help sort things out.  Part of that process was a series of 1 on 1 interviews.  During mine, we touched on something that keeps coming up in my life.  Figured it was time to write about it.

One of the co-founders is a bit ‘woo woo’.  She’s an awesome person in so many ways and we get along far more than we butt heads… but we do butt heads.  As she would say, science and logic can’t explain everything.  As I would say, any true explanation is inherently scientific and logical.  I was hoping the executive coach would help bridge this gap.

When I did the 1 on 1 interview with the coach, I told her that I wished our co-founder would have a stronger appreciation for logic and my affinity for it.  I told her that logic in its purest form was the pursuit of truth.  She replied, “well that may be the case, but everyone lives their own truth.”  I paused for a moment, having heard that a few times before.  Something about living your own truth sounds noble, and righteous, and harmless.  But it didn’t sound very logical.  I asked her to elaborate.  She said, “My favorite color is blue.  That’s my truth.  No matter what you or anyone else may think or feel, that is true to me.”  Without thinking, I replied, “But if it’s only true for that person and nobody else, how true is it?”  She replied that this was going to become a very philosophical conversation very quickly and that we should probably get back on track.  I can’t help but think that we need to start making the time for these conversations.

I’ve given a considerable amount of thought to this idea of living your own truth and her example of someone’s favorite color.  I’ve always weighed it against the concept of truth from Plato’s Republic which behaves as a great illuminator.  One seems subjective while the other seems objective.  I was always under the impression that the truth was inherently objective…

When considering the example of someone’s favorite color, I think the word truth might be a misnomer.  Someone can say that their favorite color is yellow and for that to be a true statement, but does that make it a truth?  Maybe this is the difference between a true statement and a universal truth.  Or maybe there isn’t as much of a difference as I thought.  When someone declares that they have a favorite color, as long as it is in fact their favorite color, that’s not only a true statement but a universal truth.  No matter where you are in the universe or how you might look at it, that person has a singular preference towards a certain color.  I guess where I struggle is in suggesting an equivalency for the truth that is someone’s favorite color, and the truth that 1 + 1 = 2.  Technically speaking, both are true.  But one of these is a rather arbitrary statement of someone’s preference while the other is a fundamental building block of how we understand our shared reality.  I don’t think it’s fair to refer to them both as ‘truths’.

Many years ago, I was introduced to the idea of hallucinating your reality.  It was novel at first, but once I gave it more thought, it made so much sense.  Your body receives sensory input from our senses and our brain does its best to make sense of it.  It’s why certain types of brain damage can drastically change someone’s perception of reality.  It’s why hallucinogenics can change your perception of reality.  It’s how cognitive differences can change your perception of reality.  It’s why simple bias can change your perception of reality.  Your favorite color, in this context, has nothing to do with the qualities or value of that color, and everything to do with your perception of it.

I like the acknowledgement of everyone hallucinating their own reality because it really does remind us that our understanding of reality is only as good as our ability to perceive it.  It helps make sense of a wide range of perspectives and how cognitive differences can lead to honest, yet flawed interpretations.  There are several cognitive disorders which cause people to hallucinate things which only exist in their reality.  Is that a truth?  If that hallucination only exists in their reality and nobody else’s, is it fair to refer to this as a reality?  There’s a lot of validity to the old saying, ‘perception is reality’, but maybe this is where we need to work a bit more on understanding the difference between reality and our perception of it.

Perhaps truth and reality should be synonymous.  From my perspective, what’s true is  real and what’s real is true.  And that’s separate from perception.  What’s real is the shared reality we all perceive and look to understand.  That’s inclusive of what each individual’s interpretation of it may be.  But that doesn’t mean that someone’s interpretation of our shared reality creates our shared reality.  That would be like saying that because someone’s favorite color is blue, that blue is a superior color.  Yet I run into this all the time.

A few weeks ago, I was at our office with the co-founders and they brought in some special rocks.  They had talked about crystal therapy before and I was skeptical but never went out of my way to rain on their parade.  When they brought them out, they started talking about the energy they could feel from the rocks.  Then they asked if I would like to try.  I said sure, why not.  I followed their directions, tried to sense something, and got nothing.  I was told that I probably just didn’t have what it takes to sense that energy.  I laughed it off and we moved on.

Afterwards, I reflected on why I didn’t take crystal therapy seriously.  Generally speaking, it was because it wasn’t prevalent in western medicine.  I assumed that studies had been conducted and no verifiable evidence was found.  I had also seen more than one debunking show where someone went into a crystal healing session and came out rolling their eyes.  But in this day and age, it’s not enough to rely on the opinions of others.  For all the progress that western medicine has made, it’s deeply flawed in many ways.  It’s no longer reasonable to assume that something is without merit just because western doctors haven’t adopted it.  Reflecting on it now, that was probably never an intelligent assumption to make.

In this day and age, the world of information is at your finger-tips and it’s important to do the research ourselves.  So I did.

I found a study where a group was given crystals, were asked to meditate, and report back on any positive effects they may have experienced.  What they didn’t know is that some of the crystals were real and some were fake.  People reporting on things like tingling sensations, warmth from the rock, or a general improvement in their well-being had no correlation with whether they were holding a genuine crystal or a fake.  There was however a strong correlation between those who believed that crystal therapy was real and the perceived positive effects.  That strikes me as a rather simple, yet reasonable explanation.

Here’s where things get interesting though.  If perception is reality, and their bias towards the validity of crystal healing allowed them to perceive an improved well-being, is that not valid in some way?  Your state of mind can be one of the most powerful factors in promoting healing within the body.  If crystal therapy induces that positive state of mind, and that positive state of mind helps to heal the body, would it be fair to at least consider the crystals to be a catalyst?

This perspective seems to be the most reasonable of those that support this mode of healing but I can’t help but think that this also demonstrates the reality of crystal healing: its a practice designed to deliver placebo effects.  The scientific community and western medicine are quick to dismiss placebo effects when it comes to determining the efficacy of medicine.  Perhaps they’re right to do so.  I think it’s important to recognize the body’s ability to heal itself and to study this element of the human design to its furthest reaches.  That said, I don’t think that healing practices which have only demonstrated placebo effects under controlled conditions should be promoting themselves as ancient, mystical, new-age medicine.

I find it curious that everyone acknowledges snake oil as being a ‘fake medicine’ and that we should avoid recommending it to friends or family for its benefits.  If snake oil was able to act as a catalyst for the sake of delivering placebo effects, would that change things?  And if we can place crystal therapy in the same category as snake oil, why would the ‘woo woo’ crowd be so quick to embrace one yet so quick to condemn the other?

Yesterday, my co-founders showed up to our morning meeting and one of them brought out a pair of rocks which had been infused with ‘quantum energy’.  Admittedly, quantum physics seems to be beyond my intelligence so I hadn’t a clue what it meant.  That said, I was still skeptical that someone had ‘infused’ quantum energy into a pair of rocks that looked like they had been picked up at the beach.  They both held the rocks and said they didn’t feel anything from them, and joked that infusing rocks with quantum energy seemed a bit silly.  They offered the rocks over to me and I declined… something to the effect of “No… no… I”m good.”  And maybe that’s where I should’ve left it.  But I didn’t.

I told them about the study I had read after they brought those rocks out the last time.  I said that its very difficult for me to think that something like this is real when the science behind it would strongly suggest otherwise.  They reacted as if it was a personal attack.  Their responses included, “Not everything can be explained by science”, “I know what I know and nothing that you can say will change my mind”, “well how do you explain psychic mediums who talk to the dead?”, “well from my perspective, science and religion are the same thing.”   It was like being in the twilight zone.  Worse yet, I never seem to have a chance to actually have this conversation with them.  They’re always quick to say this is unproductive and we should get back to the meeting.  When I suggest setting some time aside to discuss this stuff, they tell me that they’re too busy for that right now.  Maybe I should just let them live in their reality while I live in mine?  That doesn’t seem right either.

“Not everything can be explained with science” is a curious perspective.  As far as I know, science is the practice of explaining things.  That’s not to say that science can explain everything here and now.  Our understanding of the universe is in its infancy.  So much so that every time we make a big discovery, we illuminate that much of the unknown.  But that doesn’t change that every true explanation of our reality is inherently scientific just as every true answer to the question ‘why’, is inherently logical.

“I know what I know and nothing can change my mind.”  I suppose this should’ve been a red flag.  Anytime someone says that their mind cannot be changed, you’re dealing with someone with a closed-mind.  I wish I knew how to open those minds.

“Well how do you explain psychic mediums who talk to the dead?” I responded with psychology.  I’ve seen mentalists break down the techniques that they use to work their craft and it’s absolutely fascinating.  Those who seem to be the best at this have a remarkable understanding for how the human mind works.  What I didn’t say though, is if someone had the ability to talk to the dead or read minds, why aren’t they putting those talents to better use?  If someone legitimately had those skills, it doesn’t make sense that they would be doing palm readings for $100 a pop or doing shows in Vegas.  If your intention was to make the world a better place, there are plenty of unsolved murders which the police could use a hand with.  If your intentions were to make money, the stock market would be low-hanging fruit.  This idea that psychics have applied their talents outside of these endeavors seems a bit convenient for me.

“Well from my perspective, science and religion are the same thing.”  She has a point.  In theory, science and religion are supposed to exist at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  In practice, it’s much less so.  I find that people often believe in science, that is, they accept it as true without understanding it.  Too often, I see scientific studies with poor methodology coming to questionable conclusions.  Yet to the untrained eye, this science is just as valid as any other.  That’s just not true, and I can’t help but think that this misunderstanding is a catastrophic failure of the educational system.  When you get people to believe in science the way they believe in religion, science becomes vulnerable to the same control mechanisms that exist in religion.

Earlier this week, a mining magnate from Australia was discovered to have been a primary source of funding for scientific studies aimed at denying climate change.  Last week a study funded by the dairy industry was released outlining that dairy was once again good for you.  We don’t have to go all that far back to remember the tobacco companies funding tobacco studies that suggested that tobacco was perfectly healthy.  Perhaps the individuals conducting these studies were scientists in title, but I have a hard time seeing them as scientists in spirit.  They were given a narrative to confirm and that’s not how science works.  Science comes from a place of skepticism.  You look to connect the dots to help explain how the universe works, and once you have a working theory, you do everything you can to disprove it.  Once you’ve done that, then your peers look for different and perhaps more creative ways to disprove it.  And if your theory is still standing after all that effort, the science community grants you a scientific consensus that says ‘yes, this is probably the best explanation available’.  But even then, your theories will be continue to be tested as our knowledge of that subject and the tools available to analyze it evolves.  The idea of this approach being applied to any religion seems absolutely foreign… as it should be.  Religion requires belief and faith.  Science requires understanding and skepticism.

I would be surprised if someone hadn’t come up with this before me, but I’m rather proud of it.  I can draw a rather simple line between science and religion.  Belief is to religion as understanding is to science.  To take that a step further, when you present new information to someone who believes something, they’ll adjust that information to fit their existing beliefs.  If you present new information to someone who looks to understand something, they’ll adjust their understanding to accommodate the new information.  When someone believes in something, there’s often nothing you can say or show them that will change their mind.  When someone looks to understand something, the only thing you need to show them to change their mind is evidence.

Sometimes I consider that belief is some sort of default of human cognition.  You have a certain perspective of the world, you feel more comfortable around information that confirms that perspective, so you seek it out and adopt it.  If your goal is to seek out information which confirms your view of the world, why would you apply the rigor of the scientific method? Why would you work so hard to prove your perspective to be untrue?  My answer is simple. it’s because truth and reality matter.  In part 2, I’ll try to answer why.

 

Walking Through Life with the Confidence of a Honey Badger

Several years ago, I watched ‘The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” video.  As entertaining as that video was, it was also the first time I had really seen a Honey Badger in action.  King Cobras, bees, jackals.. The Honey Badger did not give a shit.

Last week, I found out that the skin of a Honey Badger was so durable, that it could withstand a machete, arrows, and spears.  I suppose there can be some real value in having thick skin.  And off my mind went…

I read a book a couple years ago which discussed the concept of not taking anything personally.  The idea is that whatever someone was saying about you or to you, was a reflection of how they were experiencing their reality, more than it was a reflection of you.  If a random stranger yelled a racial slur at you, there’s a good chance that outburst had more to do with them than it did with you.  Even if that random stranger said something flattering, the premise is the same.  The goal is to understand why something is being said, rather than to take what is being said at face value.

I think there’s a lot of wisdom in this approach.  There are times where someone paid me a compliment that I really enjoyed hearing, and instead of understanding why they had paid me a compliment, I accepted it as a true statement.  Later, I would discover that I had been misled, not because the other person was malicious in their intentions, but because I misunderstood their perspective or what they were trying to communicate.  If your priority is to have an accurate understanding of the world, you need to be mindful of the prejudice and bias of how others see the world – even when it’s in your favor.

While I appreciate how this approach has helped keep my ego in check, it’s arguably most effective as a defensive measure.  While I’m not perfect, I do my best to walk through life without fear, anger, or hate.  And I’m getting pretty darn good at it.  How?  I walk through life with the confidence of a Honey Badger.

I wasn’t born with thick skin.  These callouses were earned.  A lot of it was scar tissue.

I entered into adulthood understanding that sensitivity was not always a strength.  Being sensitive worked against me more often that it worked in my favor because a high degree of sensitivity would bypass my ability to think about things rationally – and I would just react.  More often than not, these reactions were extremely counter-productive.  I had to learn to handle things differently.

In my 20s, I learned the value of rational thought.  Emotions and sensitivity became something to control, not something which I would let control me.  Someone could call me the meanest thing they could come up with, and I’d be more likely to end up at a point of compassion than of anger.  I would also have more confidence in my ability to turn that person into a friend than an enemy.  And even if I couldn’t make any progress with that individual, I could move on from the situation knowing that I handled the situation the best I could and that I may have created an opening for someone else down the road.  There was something enlightened about this approach, and yet it left me feeling invincible.

I now walk through life with the confidence of a Honey Badger, knowing that there’s very little that others can do to hurt me.  And it’s changed the way I see the world.  Without fear, there is no hate.  Without hate, there is no anger.  Without fear, hate, or anger, Love is a much more natural state of mind.  Walking through life, ready to love… I can’t help but think this is a far more productive approach than walking through life ready to fear.

Now in my 30s, I’m trying to incorporate a more balanced approach, inclusive of sensitivity and emotions.  These days, I understand sensitivity to be like a dial on an instrument which collects data. If you turn the dial to zero, then you’ll collect no new information and you might as well not have the instrument at all.  If you turn the dial on the instrument to 100, you better have the ability to process all that information accurately.  I suspect that most people have a hard time adjusting that dial themselves.  I’ve seen a lot of men out there who have set that dial as low as possible and go through life too insensitive to notice the emotional nuances of those around them.  I’ve also seen a lot of women out there who have their dial set rather high, and go through life overly sensitive to the actions and words of those around them.  I doubt either is healthy.

A thick skin doesn’t make you insensitive to the world around you.  A thick skin is the difference between someone wanting to hurt you and someone being able to hurt you.  And when you realize that this dynamic exists entirely in your head, as an understanding of how the world works, it really does stand out to me as something special.  Imagine a world, full of people who are never offended, never angry, never fearful.  That world often exists inside my head… but then I venture out into the real world and I’m reminded of how much fear, hate, and despair exists in the world.

I’m not entirely sure how to navigate what comes next…  But I do know how I’ll carry myself in the process.

 

Thought Vs. Emotion

I grew up with an unemotional father while my mother and sister were on the other end of that spectrum.  I was probably a bit of a drama queen in my own right when I was a kid, but I seem to have grown out of it.  Now I’m known for my lack of emotion.  In trying to understand the sequence of events that led from there to here, I’ve noticed some interesting dynamics.

The first was bullying.  I grew up in the kind of neighborhood where fragile didn’t last.  As far as your peers were concerned, it was their responsibility to toughen you up.  For others who have been through this, they’ll know that this kind of behavior was more likely to come from my friends than from people I didn’t get along with.  Even now, we tease each other relentlessly, but I’m happy to have gone through that.  When the worst names you’ve been called come from the people who care about you most, you have to decide whether it comes from a place of hate or a place of love.  When you realize it’s a place of love, you start to realize that the intentions behind the words are far more important than their definitions.  That’s when I understood that words would only have the power that I gave them.  Today, even if it’s at my expense, I’m just as likely to laugh at a good joke as the people around me.  I can’t remember the last time I felt sad or hurt because someone said something mean to me.

From my perspective, being ‘triggered’ is an emotional state of over-sensitivity that comes from people reacting to a word’s definition without understanding the intent behind it.  Even if someone called me the worst name imaginable, with the most malicious of intent, they still wouldn’t get an emotional reaction out of me.  If anything, it would be a response of compassion.  Regardless of who I am or what I’ve done, what that person is saying has everything to do with who they are and the way they experience their reality.   If they’re overwhelmed by the need to lash out at me, they’re probably not in a very good place.  If I can, I’d like to help them get beyond that.  I can’t help but think that if we understood this dynamic collectively, we wouldn’t be so divided.

Back at University is when I first noticed myself becoming less emotional.  I think it probably started with trying to be the guy that I thought women wanted me to be – the tough guy who doesn’t cry.  I’m sure it was a lot of posturing at first, but eventually things started to shift.  There were several moments where I felt like I was forced to choose between breakdown and cry, or dig deep and march forward.  I never chose to breakdown and cry.  I’d blast some Eminem, and tell myself that even if my collar bone is crush or crumble, I will never slip or stumble.  I persevered – and was stronger for it.  Eventually, I got knocked down so many times that getting up and pushing through became second nature.  Eventually things that would’ve derailed me before barely phased me.  It was like I had gained so much momentum that I started feeling like a freight train that could crash through just about anything.  I think that’s when I started associating emotion with weakness, and a lack of emotion with strength.

Then my dad got sick.  He meant the world to me.  Everything I do now, is still, in some way for him.   When he was first diagnosed, he was given weeks to live.  I was the first one he told and he asked that I not share it with the rest of the family until he better understood what we should do next.  It was a completely unemotional conversation for both of us.  We had been presented with an impossible problem to solve, but we knew that being emotional about it wouldn’t improve our chances of getting through it.  In my family, we tend to choose our time rather than let our time choose us.  The tough old bastard lasted nearly 2 years.

As we were getting closer to the end, I remember reaching out to a friend and telling her that loosing my dad would be the hardest thing I would’ve gone through.  I told her that every time I went through something like this, I became less emotional.  I was concerned that after this, I wouldn’t have any emotions left.  I didn’t know what it would mean or how it would affect me.  My whole life, I was told about how important emotions were, but I had become so strong without them.  It was confusing.

The last time I saw him when he was coherent was when he had decided to stop eating.  He had picked his time.  I teased him a bit about being difficult and the weight he had lost.  He smiled.  I think he appreciated someone who wasn’t feeling sorry for him.  I knew that was going to be my last conversation with him so I wanted to avoid making the mistake that every macho man makes.  I broke down.  I told him that I loved him and respected more than anyone else I had ever known.  I could barely get the words out but I didn’t care.  Nothing was more important to me than him knowing how much he meant to me.  He looked at me, said happy to hear it, and shook my hand.  I laughed off the tears and thanked him again for everything.  Some people might think that he probably could’ve done a better job of saying ‘I love you too’ or something to that effect.  It wasn’t his style – nor was it needed.  What he helped me understand was that love isn’t a moment of passion or words, it’s a lifetime of action.  I had no doubt that the least emotional person I had ever known loved me more than anyone I had ever known.

My dad passed away about a week later – within hours of me taking him off the oxygen.  He was surrounded by friends and family.  We all cried.  I tried to be strong but I wasn’t that strong.  Within hours though, I was dialed in.  The bankers, the accountants, the lawyers, the executor, the bills… all me.  It was so rewarding knowing that I was able to shoulder these responsibilities, the kind of things my dad would’ve been doing to make sure the family was taken care of.  His shoes weren’t mine to fill, but his family was my family and I would always make sure they were taken care of.

I spent the next week in the zone, making sure everything was looked after.  Once I ran out of responsibilities, I went back to work.  I hadn’t shown any signs of emotion since watching my dad pass and I was concerned.  As important as it was for me to be strong for my family, it was more important that I be strong for my family for all the years to come and I didn’t want to risk having emotional baggage.  So after work each night, I did my best to allow myself to be sad.. and bummed out.. and miss him.. and to let those emotions run their course.  I did, and they did.  A funny thing happened though.  At the end of the week, I could almost hear my dad asking ‘how much longer are you gonna keep this up?’.  I thought, you’re right, I’m good.  Time to get back at it.

This wasn’t a Jedi mind trick that I was trying to play on myself.  I understood that it’s tough for a kid to lose a parent, but that it’s nothing compared to a parent losing their kid.  This was part of the natural order of things, and my father had lived a life worth living.  Rather than mourn his death, I chose to celebrate his life, and let his legacy inspire me to become greater than I could’ve otherwise been – allowing me to create a more positive impact on the world than I was previously capable of realizing.  Sadness, sorrow, love, and all these other emotions were a natural reaction to having gone through something, but it wasn’t until I had a chance to think and truly understand my situation that I gained this perspective.  It was as if emotion was the physiological reaction and biochemical experience while thought was what let me understand what had happened and allowed me to rise above it.

My dad had left a modest sized portfolio to the kids and I was responsible for it.  It was through my work on that portfolio that led me into my role as an investment advisor with a major bank later that year.  For the first time in my life, being unemotional was like having a super power.  In understanding the psychology of the markets and working with individual investors, you quickly learned that emotions were the enemy of investing.  When the market had gone up for a while, people felt safer and more optimistic it would keep going up.  That’s usually when it would start moving in the other direction.  This was especially true when the market was in a deep correction.  People would run for the hills, looking to stuff their money in their mattress when the market was in rough shape but this was always the best time to invest.  If you invested emotionally, would you almost always buy high and sell low.

A big part that role was research.  I put a great deal of time into studying great investors like Warrent Buffet as well as great CEOs like Steve Jobs.  As I continued to learn what made them tick, I also payed close attention to the qualities they had in common.  Musk, Zuckerberg, Gates, Cook, Buffet and others were all remarkably bright, inspired leaders, and unemotional.  That was the tier of human being I was aiming for, so the virtue of being unemotional was reinforced yet again.  It became something I was proud of.  It let me make rational decisions while emotions drove others to make irrational decisions.  I started to see emotions as something which clouded peoples judgement more than anything.  But I was still human.

I don’t think it would be fair to say that I didn’t have emotions, but I became very good at not letting my emotions impact my thoughts.  If I noticed that they were, it was a moment of weakness and I was quick to correct it.  Even now, I look at emotions as something to be understood and that once they’re understood, they become thought.  I can’t imagine how confusing this must’ve been for the girls that I dated.  But that’s also where I had to face the reality of thought versus emotion.

I was convinced that thought was a higher form of cognition than emotion.  You couldn’t think hate, you could only feel it.  I would say the same about fear.  Prejudice was often rooted in emotion or an incomplete thought.  I looked throughout history at some of humanities greatest accomplishments and greatest failures.  The accomplishments were heavily skewed towards great thinkers while the failures were often attributed to someone letting their emotions get the best of them.  Another thing I noticed throughout history is that as a species we seemed to be getting less emotional – suggesting that there might be an evolutionary angle.

Most of us would agree that even today, we carry evolutionary traits that we’ve outgrown.  Physical attraction is perhaps one of the best examples.  Joe Rogan calls it leftover monkey brain and it’s often at odds with how we conduct ourselves has humans today.  I’d argue further that our minds are evolving faster than our bodies and the idea of thought versus emotion is highlighting an internal battle we’re all facing.  So thought is a more evolved form of cognition than emotion right?  I don’t think it’s that simple.

Consider the example of burning your hand while cooking.  Upon first contact with the hot surface – nothing – then comes the pain.  You don’t think the pain, but you certainly feel it.  You instinctively pull your hand away from the heat source, panic for a brief moment, and then probably go put your hand under cold water.  Afterwards, your burn is highly sensitive if not painful.  I often joke around, saying that people are much easier to understand when we think about them like robots.  Extreme pain triggering an instant withdraw, followed by hypersensitivity until a repair is complete sure sounds like a subroutine to me… But that’s a physical reaction, not an emotional reaction right?  Consider the example of being cheated on.  You put yourself in a position where you expected to be safe, but weren’t.  The shock and the pain created a sharp withdrawal, maybe even inspired a few new curse-words.  You spent time feeling hurt.  Even after you get past the initial pain, there’s some degree of hypersensitivity.  While there are variations to each the point is simply that feeling like you’ve been burned is a lot like feeling like you’ve been burned.

The overlap between instinctual behavior and emotional behavior is too significant to ignore, but I think there’s at least one more layer to this: intuition.  I’m not talking about girl who’s been cheated on and is now hypersensitive to anything that might look like suspicious behavior, I’m talking about the trusting girlfriend who’s never been cheated on whose intuition is telling her that something’s wrong, even if she doesn’t know what it is.  She can’t explain it, but she can sure as hell feel it, and that’s real.

Whether we’re talking about nature or nurture, evolution or personal growth, I think it’s reasonable to assume that emotional responses can be trained.  Back to my robot analogy, imagine the human body containing thousands of sensors.  In a body like mine, those sensors feed directly into the CPU where the CPU cross-references that sensory input with other sensor data to ensure that it’s a valid reading,  Then I scan my memory for all past events relating to this sensory input, looking for patterns that would help me identify an intelligent response.  I then cross-reference that response with my internal guidelines and if all checks out, it produces an action.  Very IFTTT.  But that’s me.

So what if someone’s cognitive process excelled at sensing where I excelled at processing?  Theoretically, they’d be working with more data, and more accurate data.  When you have higher volumes of more accurate data, patterns tend to become more obvious.  When patterns are more obvious, they’re easier to react to intelligently.

When trying to understand this dynamic, I often imagine someone being able to feel the vibrations of the universe similar to how a spider senses the vibrations in their web.  When a spider feels that vibration, it knows exactly where to go and what to do, and I doubt that involves a great deal of active thought.

So thoughts versus emotions – equal but different?

I’m not sure.  I’ve always been well-served by accepting what I don’t yet understand, and pursuing a greater understanding of it.  That’s where I rest with this now.  I think there’s a strong body of evidence which suggests that the absence of thought is primal but I’m also tempted to say that an absence of emotion is hollow.  I would joke and say that the difference between thought and emotion is understanding that the world is round but feeling like it’s flat.  Well, what exactly would it be like if we understood that the world was round but lacked that ability to feel grounded?

Perhaps thought helps you connect to the non-physical universe similar to how emotion lets you connect to the physical universe.  If this is true, and we’re expanding the reach of our minds faster than we’re able to expand the reach of our bodies, thought becomes more valuable.  As we move towards virtual and digital realities, I’ll be interested to see how emotions evolve.  If I’m right, the understanding which we’ll eventually arrive at is reminiscent of Vulcan culture.  Something to the effect of emotions are a natural part of the human condition and should be appreciated as such, but they make a better co-pilot than pilot.