A comment about Sunday ramblings

I wrote this as a comment to a post from a friend of mine. He was using the simile of our primate brain as an iPhone1, trying to run IOS10 software: the 21 century culture, with its many advances in science, technology and human issues. As I understand it, he feels that we are demanding too much of ourselves to keep up with the worthy ideals of the 21 century, but we still have all our basic instincts; how outside pressures created by social media and self-improvement  ideals make us feel inadequate, as if we ought to be better, creating feelings of unhappiness. My friend was exploring the idea that these unrealistic demands have created extremes of people who are either “ultra rational” and others who are “ultra spiritual” and that we need a middle ground to become more connected with the world. His view, which is mine as well, is that we need to accept our human nature. We are the product of evolution, but that should not stop us from trying to improve. “By expressing ourselves truly, and without apologies, we will naturally be more happy, and also find the place where we can be the most productive, and therefore most help to others.”

Going with the analogy of our primate brains as an iPhone 1, I think that first model is doing reasonably well with the preinstalled software. The thing is that we all have different models. The Da Vincis, Einsteins, Beethovens, Picassos and many others have the top of the range model, which comes with an app than can create culture far more advanced than the basic model. There have also been many unfortunate cases of misuse of that advanced software, but for good or bad, all those advanced models have shaped most of our human experience and our culture. The rest of us, with the basic model, also have a more modest app, but everybody contributes to our present day culture, simply by interacting with others. By sharing points of view and experiences, we may be influencing others even without realising or intending to. The software we are running is what our hardware is capable of running. We wrote the software. The difference is how each person uses it.

Instinctive behaviours are controlled by our so-called reptilian brain. They exist because they allow us a quick response to some stimulus: you see a prey = pounce; you see a predator = run. We share this with other non-human animals because it is about survival. It controls hormones that mediate the fight or flight response, aggression, etc. Equally, cognitive biases allow us a quick overview and assessment of a situation, so we (I do) feel fear when I have to walk in front of some young men in hoodies drinking beers in a dark place.

Our primate brain also has a more evolved part, the frontal cortex, which allows us abstract thought and other higher functions such as planning and reasoning. This part of our brain also allows us to understand and follow social rules, and we know that without those rules society would break down.  We can employ this part of our brain to rein in our basic instinct or to produce a more adequate response than just following a cognitive bias.

We do not need to deny our basic instincts; we have them and they have their use in our life. We just need to use our higher functioning cerebral cortex to act appropriately given a situation. There are 7 billion people in the world. That means 7 billion ways of ranking priorities, and we are bound to disagree with most of them. I totally agree that social media create pressures on some people by comparing themselves with others, what they have or how they look, without realising that what they see in social media may be just fantasy. It is their choice, but it would be useful to exercise more critical thinking, to realise that there will always be somebody better than we are at some things, but we may be better than others at something else. Keeping up with the Joneses just diverts resources from more useful goals and is a fast way to depression and poverty. On the subject of basic instincts, I think that the reason some people excuse aggression in animals, but not in humans, is because animals have only instinct, while we have the cerebral cortex to curb raw aggression when there may be another approach. As for high heels, I do not see why men should feel guilty about liking them, and it is kind of hypocritical of women to complain but still wear the shoes. Yes, Jimmy Choos are peacocks feathers, as are Aston Martins and any high end brand. And just as peacocks feathers, they are designed to attract a mate. The difference is the peacock has only his feathers to show off his fitness, while humans have many ways, so the type of partner one is looking for determines what type of feathers we use, and that includes money, power, looks, brains, etc.

Talking about spirituality and rationality, I agree that there is a danger of having one but neglecting the other. There are people who feel that they must not question things to do with religion, and also people who think that spirituality is irrelevant or even bad in the modern world. I think rationality and critical thinking are very important in all areas of life, but I also acknowledge that there are things that cannot be explained, but we can feel. We feel a connection with something bigger than our human experience, a connection with other people, with the feelings of others, empathy and compassion, the way we are touched by looking at a great work of art or admiring a butterfly or a flower. Nothing to do with religion, just an ineffable feeling. To me that is spirituality and it can coexist happily with rational thinking. Not one OR the other, but both.

Political extremes, left wing or right wing, they are equally dangerous. Anything that polarises people is dangerous. As my friend says  “in Chinese philosophy, extreme yin will always turn into yang, and vice versa”. In Sweden they have the concept of “lagom”. It means just enough, the right amount, moderation.

We are all humans, with good and bad experiences, backgrounds, thoughts… We are all trying to make the best of our lives. Sit back and enjoy the ride!


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