A Mind is a Terrible Thing – Part 1

When it comes to drawing conclusions, everyone thinks they are a great artist.

If you light a candle in an otherwise dark cavern, you may become reassured by what the candle light allows you to see. But that light creates shadows, and reduces your ability to see into that darkness. Over reliance on that candlelight can lead you to become increasingly fearful or ignorant of what lies in the new shadows. Furthermore, if you insist on holding that candle in front of you, no matter where you turn, you will never see your own shadow, and will blind yourself to much of what is right in front of you.  This is a metaphor for our search for truth and understanding.  The effort to understand something can create new kinds of ignorance that form around what seems at first to be a new and profound understanding.

The world seems to be replete with incomplete logic lately. Polarizing politics has lead to the promotion of bad science, bad politics, bad religion, and polarizing media coverage of all of these topics.

Even the smartest and most open-minded people can become physically and psychologically addicted to the brain chemistry that accompanies certainty.  When this happens, we recoil from contradiction.

To a martial artist, this can be fatal. Yet any of us who have trained for combat have experienced times when we apparently prefer to get punched in the face rather than change our minds. We insist on seeing a right hook when it is clearly an uppercut.

In combat, as in life, polarization is a weakness, and a trap. We are taught to avoid the trap, and to see each extreme as an expression of its opposite, containing and creating its own contradiction. Water is powerful because it is soft. The tallest tree can be more vulnerable than a sapling. Strength can be brittle. Intransigence is self-destructive.  An combatant who becomes attached to point of focus, becomes easy to defeat.

There is a comfort and a sense of power that comes from feeling confident in the correctness of our opinions or tactics. This confidence involves a chemical reaction in the body and brain, which we associate with our own adamance. This is the pathology that I suspect makes everyone susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect. We are all ignorant of our own ignorance, and clueless as to our own incompetence. The less we know about something, the more confident we are of our opinions about it. Yet we cling to our opinions because of how good it feels to be confident.

In its common manifestations, this addiction to adamance makes us bullies, or victims. It makes us susceptible to demagoguery, and leads to all manner of tactical, technical, and strategic errors. Worst of all, while we remain pathetically ignorant of the affect this as on us, we can become all too aware of the effect in others. Arrogance is ignorance, and vice versa.

If we are want to seek the truth, we must be prepared to go all the way. We must not just ride our train of logic and research to the first convenient stop along the way. It is far too easy for us to accept the first reasonable conclusion that we come to. We too rarely take the time required, or invoke the courage necessary, to ride the the train all the way to its inevitable inconclusiveness.

Taking the subway from Jersey to Newark may be your first introduction to America, and may seem like a profound and enlightening experience. But it does not compare to riding the train all the way to Los Angeles. And even that, as eye-opening and mind-bending as it might be, is a narrow and shallow experience of the continent. The more you learn, the more you realize that there is so much more to learn. The less you learn, the less you think you need to know.

Example: 

If you are oblivious about body language, both consciously and unconsciously, people can lie to you to your face and you will have no clue. You will also have no clue that you have no clue.  (You might also have no particular visceral prejudice against southpaws. More on that in a moment.)

But if you are aware, on some level, that most people tend to move their eyes to the left when they are remembering something, and to the right when they are imagining a new construct, then you may consciously or intuitively develop a sense of when a person is lying to you. If you get good at it, this might work well enough so often that you decide to ignore the times when it doesn’t work at all, passing it off as some random anomaly, and possibly getting screwed around by left-handed people.

You see, left-handed people tend to be different. They may look right when remembering something, and left when constructing a lie. So, if you apply your incomplete understanding of non-visual cues too everyone, you might tend to vilify 10 percent of the population, suspecting them of lying when they are telling the truth, or trusting them in error. 

It requires experience and open-mindedness to question your own previously-proven understanding of body language. It takes real scientific investigation to be able to say, “This person is not lying. They are just left-handed.”

Even if you do figure that out, you might still create a negative association with all left-handed people. You might become inherently distrustful of left-handed people because of the way that their natural expression messes with your otherwise brilliant perception. 

But of course, it is not them, it is you. Your own seemingly brilliant conclusion cannot apply universally to all people, and that irritates you because it interferes with your logic and with your ability to simplify your model of human behaviour. It gets even worse when you discover that some people are ambidextrous, and that even some right-handed people don’t fit the typical mold.  

The real problem, of course, was that you rode the train of logic to the first station that you liked, and then got off the train. Your relationships then suffered because you were too attached to your first stroke of brilliance, and never bothered to illuminate the places where you could not see.  

If we stay on the train, we might discover that the track goes in a loop, or that it offers endless alternative destination.

Let’s take that train back to that dark cavern for a moment. If you light a few more candles in that dark cavern, you may find that it is actually a tunnel, that there are other rooms with better views, and that the universe is expanding, complicated, and seemingly contradictory.   

“It’s not easy for me, because I’m thoughtful.” 

 – David Letterman

 

 

By Ian Sinclair