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The Achilles' Heel in Your Thinking

May 23, 2014

 

Have you ever wondered why some people—and maybe we’re talking about you—are so adamant about some things? It might be a political position or your thoughts on diet and exercise, music, drunk drivers, tuna fish—the list goes on.

 

And if you were asked what informed your particular stance, answers might include your spiritual faith, personal life experience, and/or what you’ve learned from others through a wide variety of sources. Your belief system is subjective, and like your fingerprints, unique to you. As far as storage and access go, you hold the keys.

 

But although the system is subjective, what’s less subjective is the architecture it’s built on, according to many neuroscientists.

 

The thought is that the brain attaches emotional meaning to some events, in the form of memory markers. The outrage that accompanies your feelings of hearing about a hit-and-run drunk driver on the 10 o’clock news helps to both inform your opinion and store it in your memory for recall later.

 

Collected together, opinions create belief, which leads to a rule guide that you can then apply to new situations. In the science community, these are known as heuristics. Your brain catalogs them and makes them available to you for those eyeblink-fast decisions. This saves you from having to consciously invent new guidelines for every situation you find yourself in. 

 

In other words, your brain conserves energy by applying previously established rules to new events. This works pretty well most of the time. In essence, your brain is gambling that a variety of life situations are similar enough that ‘a one size fits all’ approach will get the job done.

 

Our brains rely on, and would be lost without, our network of prebuilt beliefs to help maneuver us through our day. Unfortunately, this kind of system means that we bias towards simple black-and-white answers, often choosing not to examine the nuance of a decision or argument that might put our belief at risk. 

 

This is why soundbites are so popular; they cater to the brain’s entrenched understanding of the world. We decide quickly but shallowly: this political party is the good guys and the other is the bad guys.

 

It takes more energy and a much more complicated reasoning process to seek out the grey area of a decision or argument. The only way to teach your brain how to do it is to actively question your own beliefs. That can be a messy business, which can lead to uncertainty—one of very things your system is designed to help clean up. So there is reassuring safety in locking down on a belief and adamantly refusing to open it up for assessment.

 

Of course, a little certainty isn’t necessarily bad. It might even make perfect sense, provided you’ve taken the time to work your way through your network of opinions and the nuances that drive an argument or decision.

 

But why are black and white answers so terribly seductive? The simple answer: it’s what our brains are hardwired to do. For many of us caught in the swirl of our day, relying on preconceived beliefs just saves time and energy.  Who has time to spend digging into the reasoning, or lack thereof, behind our decisions?

 

Our heuristics have allowed us to flourish and populate a large portion of the planet, and yet as a species, the over reliance on unexamined beliefs is also our collective Achilles’ heel.

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