Friday, November 18, 2016

Not All Thinking Is Thoughtful and Not All Reasons Are Reasonable

Why is it easier to make emotional decisions, based on fear or anger (which is just fear trying to be scary), than it is to make rational and logical decisions? Why is it that when we look back at our fear-based decisions, we remember them as having been logically thought out?

I believe the first of these unfortunate facts is based on two accidents of evolutionary biology.
1) Our logical thinking, or reflection, was one of the most recent skills developed during our evolution. As a result, it is relatively slow and takes a lot of energy.
2) Our much faster thinking is based on recognising patterns (reaction), and the part of our brain that does that shares space with the part of our brain that processes emotion. This means our reactions fast but they are also very emotional.

I believe that the second of these unfortunate facts is directly linked to the overconfidence that helped our ancestors leave the trees to wander around the world. Once we have made a fast, emotional reaction, we somehow always convince ourselves that our reaction was deliberate and carefully thought out.

If you'd like to read my whole explanation, you can find it in my book. If you'd rather read a simple allegorical story, you'll find it below. 


The Story of the Angel and the Ape

One day, God took the brain of a clear-thinking and rather clever Angel and set it like a hat on top of the brain of a particularly nervous and self-important Ape, and forced them to share a single body, which God made look like a new creature all together.

Why would God do that? It’s hard to say… Who can know the thoughts of God?

To make matters worse, God gave Ape’s brain full control of the body. God told Angel, “You can try to control what you do, but you will have to convince Ape to let you have control before your interface with the body will work”.

The body wet itself.

I think it was just a coincidence, because Ape really hadn’t been listening, but Angel took it as a sign. You get used to signs after spending any amount of time dealing with God.

Angel retained his ability to enjoy the finer things, like sunshine, and laughter, and time with friends, even poetry and mathematics and art and the pure joy of learning something new.

But Ape not only had control of the body, the brain below also had a very strong influence on the brain above. So sometimes sunshine and laughter became overwhelming for the Angel, who would be completely overpowered by Ape’s rich emotional reactions. Angel would also be overwhelmed by Ape’s spontaneous and illogical thoughts, and by Ape’s pervasive fears and pleasures. Speaking of which, sometimes Ape’s idea of how to behave with friends made Angel wince, and he often found himself having to try and apologise after having done something embarrassing.

But that was not the worst thing about this new arrangement. The worst was the way in which Angel’s other pleasures were affected. The joy of maths and of poetry and of art and of learning all became selective. Angel liked just to sit still sometimes, and Ape preferred to chase things. If Angel couldn’t convince Ape to sit still, Ape would always find something to hate or something to lust after or some way in which to take offence. Ape always wanted to be entertained on the most visceral level, and there was nothing that Angel could do to stop that. Angel had to go to extreme lengths to convince Ape not to indulge every urge and appetite, and it was almost impossible to study anything at all. All of this internal fighting was exhausting…
…rewarding when it worked, but too hard to keep at it very often or for very long.

Mostly, Angel had no real choice but to sit back and watch what Ape got up to. It would be Angel’s job to find a way to try and survive any trouble Ape either found or created, and Ape would always make it sound as though that solution had been in the plan all along.

In fact, Ape did that with all of Angel’s memories, twisting them around until they suited Ape’s world view. Angel had to try very hard to remember that he was prone to making mistakes, and that he wasn’t good at everything, and even that he might not always have a good plan before he starts to speak or act. Strangely, in the midst of all of this ridiculous overconfidence and egocentrism, Angel’s thoughts were always awash with Ape’s fears and uncertainties. Angel was faced with a tough decision: to struggle incessantly, trying to maintain perspective and reasonable self-control, or to surrender to Ape’s emotional and unpredictable whims.

That’s about it for this story. There’s really not much else to say, except maybe that it turned out that God did this to more than one Angel and more than one Ape,

and that they bred true,

and that their descendants include me,

and that their descendants include you.



Excerpt from John NA Brown ’ s unpublished collection of short stories, “Fairytales for the 21st Century”

from the book
“Anthropology-Based Computing:
Putting the Human in Human-Computer Interaction”