You may know exactly the world you live in. But consider this- the latest brain research suggests that the mind generates a narrative that explains our surroundings, a narrative we rely on to respond and act skillfully in the world. If only our brains were at work accumulating and integrating as many facts as possible, leading us to the fullest picture possible so we can respond most appropriately in moments of uncertainty. However, our brains are content with just enough information to get by, nowhere near a full accounting of all the facts or all the concerns, and nowhere near a complete picture of what is really going on. The decisions and choices each of us makes in any situation are based on a story that, by its very design, is flawed. Whether or not you have read Free the Brain: Overcome The Struggle People And Organizations Face With Change (www.freethebrain.com), let me explain.
Sometimes, that story focuses too much on what happened in the past, leading to an obsession with what has been, what some say results in depression. Sometimes that story is too concerned with what might happen, all the what if’s, leading to anxiety. In our current world there is much talk about ‘being in the moment.’ Of course, that risks not only making the same mistakes again, but opens the door to getting tripped up by things you could have seen coming. A balance among all three provides the best chance of making the best choice about what to do in that moment.
In his book, Master and His Emissary, Ian McGilchrist (http://iainmcgilchrist.com) dives deeply into the research and suggests the brain ‘thinks’ in two perspectives, one of which he calls right sided and the other left sided. His ‘right sided’ perspective takes in data from the senses and forms a view that is most like a video, a continuous streaming of what is actually going on. His ‘left sided’ view takes this and parses it into its individual frames, looking to reformulate it so as to manipulate the circumstances in order to command and control the situation for its own advantage. Nowadays, most understand that brain function is not necessarily best described in anatomically divided ways. So I’ll call these two perspectives right minded- ‘the world as it is’ -and left minded- ‘the world as we want it to be.’
In the more controversial second half of the book, MacGilchrist examines different periods in human history to make the case that mankind has oscillated in its ability and/or willingness to balance these two perspectives. Sometimes societies have focused on using all one’s talents and efforts to command and control the world, taking from it whatever it will to achieve ‘success’ - a predominately left minded view. At other times, the prevailing sentiment has been a more right minded approach - to live in the world as it is. And there have been times where people and societies have struck a balance between the two.
Of course, an imbalance carries some risk. If the focus is on command and control, that disconnect from ‘the world as it is’ may well lead to decisions and choices that just don’t fit. Some would call this wishful thinking and suffer the consequences of failed choices. But if the emphasis is too much on ‘the world as it is,’ then not using one’s talents and efforts to make it better misses out on the potential to improve that world.
MacGilchrist looks at the subsequent 250 years since the Industrial Revolution and sees a predominately left minded perspective where people have looked at the world as they want it to be and gone out and made it happen. Think the printing press, combustion engine, clean water, increasing agricultural output, antibiotics, computers, a man on the moon, and on and on. we have a certainly benefitted from all this. On the other hand, he points out that we have gradually lost touch with the world as it is, failing to avoid getting tripped up by the consequences of barreling straight ahead toward this world as we want it to be. Think pollution, climate change, resistant diseases, wars, genocide, extremism, partisan politics, poverty, inequality,……you get the picture.
The main challenge for the brain is how to address uncertainty. It does this by crafting a story that best explains the circumstances and provides a basis upon which to decide how to act. Yet, the brain is not interested in a complete accounting of the circumstances or the full array of concerns present. What chance, then, do we have to achieve any balance in forming that story? To understand how that story is formulated is to gain some insight into balancing between ‘the world as it is’ and ‘the world as we want it to be.’
This story starts in, what Shankar Vedentam terms, the Hidden Brain (https://hiddenbrain.org). We are not aware of the processing taking place here. All we ‘know’ is the version that subsequently comes to mind.
Much has taken place before this story appears, and most of this occurs in the Hidden Brain. The brain has observed its surroundings and chosen one out of the many patterns it has ingrained in its neural networks that appears to be the closest match. For your brain, close enough is good enough, because in the past, the response it then suggests worked.… except when it didn’t.
The pattern and response ultimately chosen depends on how the brain defines success for that situation. That notion begins in the Hidden Brain with one’s worldview- the way a person believes the world works and the rules it has used to navigate that world, something I refer to as one’s ideology. These are our deep seated biases rooted in genetic memory, upbringing, and experience.
The particular circumstances the brain has observed through the senses are then sewn onto the tapestry of this worldview. Some of those observations take place in the sphere of awareness, but much only registers out of view in the Hidden Brain, which does not apply all the details. It selects only those that address the concerns of the moment, those that enable the choice of a pattern that is close enough. The details that are selected depend on what I call the sorting criteria. These are the consequences of failure and the potential benefits if successful for the particular issue at hand. In other words, the brain only 'sees’ what it is looking for.
Only when the Hidden Brain believes it has found the closest match to explain what it is going on does it then pass that story on, and you become aware of what you think and believe. Imagine that- what comes to mind is not something you have been aware of until you are allowed in on the conversation.
Sometimes we are not so sure about that story, and this shows up as ambivalence. In this case the brain’s immense powers of analysis and deliberation, residing in this sphere of awareness, investigate the issue to uncover additional information or concerns the Hidden Brain may have missed, providing a fuller view of the picture. Rather than make the decision or choice of what to do, what is learned through this deliberation is reported back to the Hidden Brain, which takes this feedback, reconsiders the story, and makes a new determination as to whether there is a better version emerging. Contrary to popular belief, it is in the Hidden Brain, far removed from your awareness, where the decision is made as to what is the ‘best’ story.
Once the ‘correct’ story is settled on, the sphere of awareness now uses its vast array of powers to select just the memories, ‘facts,’ and explanations that rationalize, justify, and defend this version as the ‘truth.’ Indeed, it is the truth as far as the brain is concerned.
In this back and forth interplay, the brain does its best to balance ‘the world as it wants it to be’ with ‘the world as it is.’ In this way, the brain makes its best attempt to move forward toward its notion of success.
Do not underestimate the power of the brain to ‘believe’ that its story is the ‘best’ one…..even when it may not be. It takes way less energy to stay the course than to devote precious energy and attention to ‘rethink’ that story, even when conflicting data or concerns call it into question. One’s brain can be pretty stubborn, until a tipping point is reached where it can no longer ignore that the story is no longer the best version with the best chance to end in success.
Change the sorting criteria- what matters the most at that moment in that situation- and the story changes. Change the story, and decisions and choices change.
So given this, when you stand back and look around, what is the world you live in. Think about something you re grappling with. Where is your balance between MacGilchrist’s left and right minds? Are you seeing ‘the world as you want it to be’ or ‘the world as it is’? Where does your story sit between ‘the what was,’ ‘the what if’s,’ and ‘the what now’?
And as you ponder that, think about your workplace and what goes on in your world there. Do those who report to you live in the same world in the same way as you do? Do those who supervise your work see your world the same way you do? Do these stories arise from the same set of facts and the same array of concerns? from a different ideology/worldview? Does your story enable others to be successful?
And how might it impact your notion of success in any situation if you spent some energy to challenge your own story, ask what you are missing or have dismissed in preserving that story? How does that story change if you incorporate what others are seeing and concerned about? Is your notion of success ‘the world as you want it to be’? or ‘the world as it is’?
And how might you go about doing this yourself or in your organization?
Ah, that is what Free the Brain is about.