so what

so what

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Your brain lives in a Transactional Reality - and it can read minds.

I predict it's going to cost more than 99 cents
Part of what we do in our client work is predict the future. How we do this is a subject for another post, but we are ridiculously accurate.

The fun bit is hearing someone inevitably declare, “No one can predict the future!"

”Our response? “Billions of people do it every day.”

And they are good at it. 

This is because humans are social primates. We don’t just want to be around other people, we need to be with other people.

Because of this compulsion to mingle we enjoy thousands of years of evolutionary experience in reading the signals others send. These signals we constantly monitor—dress, body language, family interaction, voice tone, eye contact, familiarity level—are the cultural cues that fix our position relative to the group and our environment.

All of us are sending and receiving constantly and unconsciously. We are blissfully unaware of the process - until our unconscious mind spots something that demands directed attention, like a possible threat, an attractive potential mate, or simply hearing our name across a crowded room.

We live in a Transactional Reality: the steady but invisible exchange of information. It’s why we behave differently in groups than as individuals.  Far from isolated units, we are born, raised, and live our lives within a shared cultural matrix. Just as the “empty” space between the particles of an atom are alive with forces (such as gravity) that shape its behavior, the space between people is a dynamic cultural communications network.
We can do this because the human brain is essentially a pattern-seeking device. Among the leading patterns our brain searches out is human intention, based on repeated patterns of emotions, body language, context, and a myriad other variables.

Certain emotions are universals – every culture shares them and expresses them in the same recognizable way. Basic emotions are so easily profiled that we can mimic them with a few strokes of a computer keyboard to create emoticons that our brain will instantly recognize even if it is sideways. :-)  

And it appears that not only can other people read our emotional expressions, but simply making them affects our own mood. Make a frown and you will feel a bit sad; force yourself to smile and your mood will lighten slightly. Weird but true, we can change our own mental state just by faking it.

All this happens in the service of the Hidden System that enables complex social relationships that are the hallmark of human societies. This skill set is understanding the mental state of others. It’s called Theory of Mind: the conscious understanding that we each have mental states expressed as beliefs, intents, perspectives, knowledge, experience, motives, and desires.

What’s more, we understand that others also have mental states and that those states may be different than our own at any time and place.
The most astonishing fact is that we don’t think of this as astonishing at all. We just proceed to play our part in this vast transfer of subconscious information without ever realizing we are mind reading.

But we are. Constantly projecting ourselves into other people’s minds, deciding what they are thinking and feeling (and why). Even more boldly, we predict what they will do in the immediate future. The incredible reality is that our predictions so often prove correct.

Or, rather, it would be incredible if we actually thought about it. Which we don't
We aren’t born with this ability, it’s an outcome of that pattern-seeking brain of ours. what takes us a while to learn is that other people may have knowledge, feelings, motivations, and desires separate and distinct from our own. Children don’t develop full Theory of Mind until around age seven.

The outcome is empathy - the ability to understand the emotional state of others.
And that’s exactly where our little mind-reading act can go all pear-shaped.

Emotion-reading makes you powerful, but at the same time, it also makes you vulnerable. Not everyone has your best interests at heart. Some people are more empathetic than others. Besides highly empathetic people, there are two other groups who score just as high on reading emotions. Want to guess who?

Narcissists and sociopaths.

People who score high on the type of narcissism called exploitativeness find it easy to manipulate people into doing what they want. Where empathetic people can see caution and thoughtfulness, exploiters read uncertainty and low confidence. That makes those people targets.
Empathy is a powerful weapon in the wrong hands.  The world is full of manipulative types: emotional abusers, self-declared psychics, hucksters, pitchmen, and other skilled empaths, all trying to sell you something, from a new household appliance to investments to a belief system.

Now THAT is one grumpy cookie!
And there is another issue with empathy. We can also fool ourselves.

Our brains are designed to read faces for key information such as emotional state, possible intention, and potential threat.

However, we have only a single model to compare those to – our own human emotions.

Which would be ideal, if we experienced empathy just with other humans.  But our brain is so primed to detect and interpret faces that we see them everywhere, a phenomenon called “pareidolia.”

This means we see faces in clouds, rocks, trees, and flowers, and we assign precise emotions to those faces. We post their pictures on the internet. A quick search will find grumpy cookies, astonished electric sockets, happy household appliances, and hundreds – if not thousands – of other anthropomorphous objects.

It’s even easier to do when what you are looking at actually has a face.  So we apply human face-reading to animals. We read their faces as if they were human, and Angry Bluebird, Grumpy Cat, and Stoner Dog becomes internet memes.
Complicating the problem is that vision doesn’t work as we think it does. That’s a story for another post, but the short form is that we don’t always see what’s actually there. Instead we see what we expect to see.

There is speculation that empathy plays a part in human spirituality. The thinking is that since the brain is programmed to find meaning and intention in people’s behavior, it also can find intention in everything else – from natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes, to accidents, illness, business failures, social unrest, and even the ultimate disruption – death.

It’s not too surprising, then, that psychologists have found that the religious are more prone than atheists to see faces in ambiguous photos.
There are well-documented reports of Christians seeing images of The Virgin Mary in a window of a bank in Clearwater, Florida,  the window of a private home in a Chicago suburb, and burned into a piece of toast. But Christians never see Buddha in a cloud bank or a piece of toast because they don’t expect to.

Neither do Buddhists. Buddha was not divine but simply a man who had found enlightenment and taught others the way. He didn’t do miracles, therefore Buddhists don’t expect to see him in a vision. And they don’t.

We see what we expect to see. For American Christians, that includes Jesus, Mary, and occasionally Elvis, but we never see Henry Ford or Isaac Newton. It wouldn't even occur to us.

So What?

Given the intuitive nature of empathy itself, it is very hard to avoid breaking the species barrier. But when we attribute human motivations to nonhuman species and events we enter into dodgy territory.

Which is important to remember since empathy is highly functional, allowing us to form social networks, comfort the afflicted, avoid conflict, negotiate across diverse cultures, feel the pain of abused animals, and share grief – in other words, do what makes us human.

Empathy drives our emotions.  And our emotions drive our choices, our judgments, our buying habits, and our public policy.

And we can get empathy very wrong.

Just thought that may be something you'd like to keep in mind.

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