17 May Our brain tends to identify what can be a threat, and find it difficult to comprehend that everything is going well.. (MO GAWDAT)
At the root of our challenging relationship with our own brains is the fact that it’s a device that was assembled, tested, and (mostly) completed hundreds of thousands of years ago, in a vastly different environment with vastly different requirements. Features that were once advantageous now drag on our capability for happiness. Despite its immense processing power, the human brain is still spitting out solutions for equations that have little to do with our modern world—and less to do with happiness. Because of its evolutionary origins, the world your brain deals with is ancient, murky, and terrifying. So are its strategies. If we are to use this device properly, we need to adapt its programming to match its new operating envi- ronment. But first let’s see how it all began.
On the Origin of Blind Spots A branch on the bush a few steps behind the Cro-Magnon hunter shakes ever so slightly. The sound catches the skilled hunter’s attention. He waves his hand to his gang, instructing them to lay low and stay quiet while he investigates the source of the sound. He squints his eyes, sharpens his hearing, and filters out every other sensory stimulation. That bush gets his undivided attention. Everything else fades into the background. The wind is blowing from behind him in the direction of the bush. He reckons
that this is why he couldn’t smell the beast he fears. This is the game plan beasts follow as they attack. Clearly this is a clever predator, a tiger perhaps, and from the height of the branch that moved he further assumes it must be a large one indeed. In the dead quiet, the hunters hold their breath. The bush stops moving, an indi- cation that the beast knows it’s been noticed. In his mind, the Stone Age hunter predicts an imminent battle. He imagines with precision the angle and speed of at- tack. The attack is just seconds away, he’s certain, so he waves to his pals to take a few steps back. His caution is based on painful past experiences. Since he first ventured into the jungle to hunt alongside his father, many fine hunters became prey to a wild beast in careless moments. Though many moons have passed, he recalls memories of how the beasts pounced, threw their victims to the ground, and tore the muscles from their bones. He lives that memory as if it were happening in front of his eyes, and his heart starts to race. There isn’t a moment to waste. Trying to process the fine details to further ana- lyze the situation would eliminate his chances to escape. The risk is too high. He needs to make a snap decision, so he labels the situation a clear and present dan- ger. When his life depends on it, speed matters much more than accurate investigations. He feels an overwhelming emotion of panic. His brain imposes this state by flooding his body with adrenaline to prepare him for a fight-or-flight reaction. As the panic takes over, his brain exaggerates, seeing every possible scenario as far more dangerous than it actually is. This could be a pack of tigers, he thinks. We could be surrounded. There’s no point attempting to fight; we’re all going to die. More branches move violently. In a split second, he instinctively turns his back to the bush and prepares to run—just as a few birds fly off. A little sheepishly the hunter looks up to the sky as he realizes his tiger is nothing more than a flock of birds. Who cares if the past few minutes were a bit stressful, his brain thinks. At least we’re still alive. For millennia, our brains have been equipped with the seven incredible features I’ve just highlighted: filters, assumptions, predictions, memories, labels, emotions, and exaggeration. Yes, these tendencies may have ensured the survival of our species long ago. And our ancestors didn’t begrudge the discomfort those features caused them because they navigated an extremely hostile environment. For them, it made sense to assume the worst because the worst frequently happened. As we developed civilization and drove the tigers away from our cities, swapped our hunting grounds for the jungles of the workplace, clubs, and malls, we have continued to rely on these seven features. Yet we seldom stop to ask how effective they’ve become in this “alien” environment. Just as a screwdriver can be used to tighten a screw or to poke us in the eye, those survival features can be turned into blind spots that work against us and make us unhappy.
SOLVE FOR HAPPY