Thinking about belief

Our milky way above a dead forest, aka 'Woodhenge', near the banks of the river Maas, near the Dutch-Belgian border.

I’ve been thinking about belief, about how it works (and doesn’t). I’ve also been thinking about and why I don’t think about it more. Why we all, collectively, don’t think about it more.

One of the things that is unique to us as humans is our ability to engage in meta cognition – to step outside ourselves and look at how we think. But thinking about thinking and understanding how our beliefs work seems almost as unpalatable as updating our beliefs when new information comes along.

Two things set me down this path:

– An episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast on Bayes’ Theorem

Sam Harris reading from his book, The End of Faith

Both are about the nature of belief but come at it from completely different sides.

You Are Not So Smart is looking at belief as a greyscale where things are neither true or untrue, but they have a probability of being either. Once we accept this, we can use Bayes’ Theorem to understand the probability around our beliefs and update them when new information comes to hand.

Sam Harris on the other hand is taking a logical sledgehammer to some of the most cherished beliefs we have – those around religion. He shines a light on the dangers inherent in taking our beliefs from ancient texts which don’t stand up to any kind of modern scrutiny and the importance of reforming those beliefs as quickly as possible.

Even if you don’t agree with Harris on religion, there are interesting though experiments and ideas to take away.

Both are broadly concerned with the mechanisms which can either reinforce or erode our beliefs and the value or otherwise in doing so.

I’m still doing the work to required to have an opinion on all of this, but if you’re interested in understanding and challenging what you believe about what you believe – these are two good places to start.

Lobotomies and imaginary snakes

Snake by Parker Knight

It’s easy to get caught up in an abstract world, and miss what’s happening right around us.

This is because we experience the world in a re-constructed, semi-artificial way.

We don’t “see” a tree. We see a reconstruction of it. Our brain receives information from the outside and reconstructs it in a model which makes sense to us.

It’s an abstraction, removed from the outside world, and yet it feels perfectly real.

This ability to create abstractions and then treat them as real, is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to interact with the physical world around us in a meaningful way. We can recognise and manipulate objects and respond to changes in our physical environment. It also allows us to interact with other people both directly and indirectly, sharing thoughts and ideas which are themselves abstract.

In fact, you and I are doing this right now. And we’re not even in the same space (or time) – that’s pretty amazing.

The flip side of this ability is that we can create imagined or potential scenarios in our brain and respond to then in much the same way as we would the real world. We can think about a potential event in the future and it can bring us the same joy and excitement or stress and discomfort as an event we actually perceive in the present.

Since all our experience of the world is via reconstructions, and we often like to switch between levels of abstractions, our brain has little interest in distinguishing between what’s real and what’s made up. To (at least one part of) the brain, it can pretty much seem one and the same.

And this is a problem when it comes to our physical stress responses and how they are wired to be triggered.

We have a number of deeply ingrained, biological warning mechanisms which are designed to fire a stress response when we perceive threats in our external environment. A leopard in a tree or a snake at our feet triggers this response and makes us uncomfortable enough with the current situation that we just want to leave.

Once we get out of the situation, the stress response disappears and we go back to normal. Phew.

But here’s the rub: That same ability to work with abstract concepts as if they are real, can trigger our stress response in exactly the same way – for imagined as well as actual threats. We think about a horrible email we might get in the future – zing – stress response. We imagine a confrontation with our boss – zing – stress response.

The result is that this stress response, which is meant to be an acute, short-term response to a real, immediate threat can be fired in a continuous and relentless way in response to imaginary and less immediate situations.

This can quickly overwhelm us and seriously inhibit our ability to operate normally.

It can also make us feel like shit.

The bad news is that there is no way to turn this off without losing our ability to interact with the real world, or work with abstractions. It would also leave some serious lobotomy scars.

The good news is, we can turn it down, it just requires some time and deliberate attention. We can be much more skilful at managing our responses if we start watching our thoughts and being aware of what’s happening in our brain.

It’s largely irrelevant whether you do this through a formal practice like meditation or just by taking note of how you feel and what you’re thinking about – the important thing is that you do it.

Once you’re aware of what’s going on in your brain, you can then make better decisions about what to do about it.

Sometimes you’re going to want to make changes in the physical world, but other times it might makes sense to just stop thinking about imaginary snakes.

This post riffs on ideas from Tara Brach, David McRaney and Seth Godin.

The (sometimes abusive) power of consistency

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 12.17.01

Consistency is important to us puny humans, it’s fundamental to how we construct our view of the world. We don’t see the actual world, we construct a model of it in our head.

David McRaney has a great explanation of it.

“You are trapped in a skull, unable to actually interact with the world outside. You depend on messages from sense organs written in code. When you decode the messages, you alter the map and the models, but that’s all you can ever hope to know about the outside world – that map and those models.”

Things which behave, perform and present themselves to us consistently, are easier for us to model.

Things which behave, perform and present themselves to us consistently, are easier for us to model. Similarly, we become uncomfortable when we experience something which is not consistent with our model of it

People are the same. We’re comfortable who act consistently with our model of them – both from a behaviour and a performance perspective.

How we deal with inconsistency

Someone who is always pleasant to us, we model as pleasant.
Someone who is always an arsehole to us, we model as an arsehole.
Someone who is sometimes pleasant and sometimes an arsehole, we tend to defensively model as an arsehole.

As soon as you’re inconsistent, people are tempted to model you against the worst end of your spectrum. It’s easier for them the deal with. If someone is an arsehole a significant percentage of the time, then its simpler (and less painful) to expect that from them in the future.

Likewise with performance. It doesn’t matter if someone’s work is brilliant some of the time. If you rely on the quality of their work output, then their lack of consistency will negatively impact your model of them.

This isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination.

The world and the people in it are complex and nuanced, and nobody is pleasant or high performing all of the time.

But our brains don’t care, they want to do what’s easiest, what conserves glucose. Unless we make a deliberate effort, we rest on our models.

What are the real world takeaways?

There are two sides to this:
1) The more consistent you are, the easier things will be with other people. The narrower your spectrum of behaviour or performance, the more likely they are to model you close to your best.

Of course, it’s ok to not be consistent. You might not want to make it easy for others, or not care what they think. But that should be a deliberate choice – not a habit or reflex.

2) The more aware you are of you’re own models, the more you can spot when they’re inconsistent with the actual situation in the here and now. We can sleepwalk through the day quite easily letting our models act as a crutch. But we can also take the time to deliberately notice what’s true now, and use that to update our models – to make them more accurate.

Consistency isn’t everything, but for better or worse it radically influences the default settings we all come with. Best to understand both sides of it and make deliberate choices about how we let it impact our lives.