The Fridge Door

I read a top neuroscientist’s suggestion last night that our capacity to understand how the human brain works may ultimately be limited by the capacity of our nervous system. This reminds me of a thought I had when studying philosophy of mind at Oxford: if our brain was simple enough to understand we’d probably be too simple to understand it.

One thing I do believe is that the brain is probabilistic and Bayesian. So I was interested to read what Dorothy Rowe, an Australian psychologist had to say about it in a recent article in the New Scientist:

Over the last 20 years or so, neuroscientists have shown that our brain functions in such a way that we cannot see “reality” directly. All we can ever know are the guesses or interpretations our mind creates about what is going on. To create these guesses, we can only draw on basic human neuroanatomy and on our past experience. Since no two people ever have exactly the same neuroanatomy or experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way.

I’m increasingly sure this is right and is part of our everyday experience. But as the world becomes more cosmopolitan, we are more and more likely to encounter people with very similar neuroanatomy, but incredibly different experiences. I’ve read before that humans are very poor judges both of probability and coincidence. When we bump into someone we work with on holiday or a friend we’ve not seen in years in an airport we assume fate, a guiding hand or incredible coincidence.

On holidays this year I bumped into a person from work at a village festival in France, the former Chairman of my organisation on a cliff in Devon and crossed within 6 feet of UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, each of us barefoot in shorts on a beach in Cornwall. Incredible. But in fact not. Our brains are tuned for the humdrum of a hamlet, village, smallholding or savanna plain not the incredibly interconnected world of 21st century media, Facebook friends, social networks and ubiquitous travel.

Even if we are from the same physical place, we live on tremendously varied diets of interests, TV and work. The massing moments of the 19th and 20th century: factory gates, church, football, movies and network TV, which gave many people common experiences and outlooks, are no more. What chance then you’ll spontaneously see things the same way as the next man or women at work – almost none.

As Dorothy Rowe writes: This is frightening. It means that each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. Moreover, if everything we know is a guess, an approximation, events can, and often will, invalidate our ideas.

I have seen a number of very experienced senior people apply for fewer jobs than there are of them this week. I have spoken at length to several of them. Although trying to hide it, each was frightened, alone and in their own world of meaning. They knew to some degree that future events can and probably will invalidate their ideas of themselves, but each of them was to some extent caught in a solipsistic, self-referencing nightmare of wanting to be in control of their destiny and feeling utterly powerless in the face of their perceptions of the views others held of them – the deciders, their peers, their loved ones, the court of organisational opinion.

As new age writer Don Miguel Ruiz writes: “All the sadness and drama you have lived in your life was rooted in making assumptions and taking things personally. The whole world of control between humans is based on that”. Or as the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus said “it is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things”.

So: we cannot see reality directly, we are poor judges of probability and coincidence and we are always guessing at what is happening based on snatched perceptions and an experience set which is always different – and sometimes very different – from those we find ourselves working with. As a result we are perpetually making self-limiting assumptions and taking things personally. Thus we are often alone, fearful and perturbed.

Stoicism is one answer. Endure, expect little and shrug off life’s indignities. Being a hermit is another. But if I seek the fulfilment of a public life of Aristotelian virtue – lit by bright flashes of ‘doing the right thing’ with the courage of Achilles – neither of those is enough.

Given the wrapper of how people ‘interpret’ things is all important, this week I’ve tried several times to remember the advice of a friend I spoke to a couple of weeks ago. He has an autistic, teenage stepson. Tricky. He sometimes tries to correct his behaviour and gets a lively reaction. His wife though has a way which works. Instead of saying “you left the fridge door open” she simply says “the fridge door is open”. Nine times out of ten it gets closed without any drama.

Simply saying how things are or how I see them has worked better for me in a very emotionally charged week than assuming, cajoling, second-guessing or taking things too personally.

Simply saying “the fridge door is open” gets it closed more often than not.

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