Of pride and prejudice: Inside the human mind

If you were a teenager in the 1990s, you may remember En Vogue’s chart-topping song which went “Free your mind and the rest will follow”. Western philosophy has celebrated the past three centuries or so—the modern era, if you will—as the freeing of the human mind. (The 18th century, for instance, is known as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason.) Indeed, this time has been dominated not only by the rise of Western democracies but also, in parallel, the rise of scientific thought and technological progress—most spectacularly embodied in the Industrial Revolution.

Even with the benefit of hundreds of years of hindsight, the mind boggles at the sheer number of inventions produced by this revolution—the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, the telegraph, the light bulb, the sewing machine and much more. And there you were celebrating Elon Musk’s car floating in space?

The human mind created all this, and therefore it stands to reason that the human mind must be a super-charged supercomputer powering the progress of civilisation. Spinoza, the German philosopher, said in Proposition 23 of Ethics, “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but there remains of it something which is eternal.” His exaggerated faith in the human mind was symptomatic of the era he lived in (1632 to 1677).

And what of our brain, that physical human organ that is closely related to our intangible mind? The mind might truly be without limits, but psychologists have shown us over the past 10 years that there is a gulf between our perception of how powerful our brains are and their true abilities.

The hubris of the free mind

Everyone agrees that traffic sucks. But here’s the problem: over the past 50 years, urban planners across the world have struggled to predict traffic flows, in spite of sustained efforts to do so. The difficulty stems from two distinct factors: the lack of systematic and accurate data on traffic flows across entire cities and the diversity of drivers’ self-adaptive decisions with regards to the routes they take.

To complicate matters further, the advent of GPS has made these decisions even more self-adaptive. Last year we took Jogeshwari Vikhroli Link Road to go to IIT Bombay for the Mood Indigo festival because Google Maps told us so. But Google Maps also told the same thing to another 150 people. The result? By the time we reached the college, our friends, who took the Eastern Express Highway had already arrived.

Complex traffic flows are like the complex neural networks in our mind. Vanilla or chocolate ice cream, mid-cap or small-cap stocks, route 1 or route 2—there’s a battle royale raging in the different factions of your brains over simple decisions. Understanding this chaotic complexity of the brain—and abandoning the computer-related analogies of the brain—is central to coming to terms with its strengths and weaknesses. Neuroscientist David Eagleman describes these neural wars vividly in his book The Brain: The Story of You:

Imagine you’re making a simple choice, standing in the frozen-yoghurt store, trying to decide between two flavours you like equally. Say these are mint and lemon. From the outside, it doesn’t look like you are doing much…But inside your brain, a simple choice like this unleashes a hurricane of activity.

By itself, a single neuron has no meaningful influence. But each neuron is connected to thousands of others, and they in turn connect to thousands of others, and so on, in a massive, loopy, intertwining network. They’re all releasing chemicals that excite or depress each other.

Within this web, a particular constellation of neurons represents mint. This pattern is formed from neurons that mutually excite each other. They’re not necessarily next to one another; rather, they might span distant brain regions involved in smell, taste and your unique history of memories involving mint…

At the same time, the competing possibility – lemon – is represented by its own neural party. Each coalition—mint and lemon—tries to gain the upper hand…They fight it out until one triumphs in the winner-take-all competition. The winning network defines what you do next.

Research has conclusively shown that the brain is no good at multitasking

If choosing an ice cream flavour stresses so many neurons, do you actually think you understand this article while responding to pings on WhatsApp? In fact, research has now conclusively shown that the brain cannot multitask—we can only think one thought at a time.

In his path-breaking book The Mind is Flat, Nick Chater of the Warwick Business School shows that while doing something routine and well-practised, humans can do two things at once, like driving and talking. However, when anything non-routine is introduced (such as driving and thinking through the budget for your next holiday), then multitasking becomes really difficult. Chater says:

Most of the things that we find are reasonably challenging we can only do one at a time. We think we are multitasking but in fact we are jumping from one task to the next quite rapidly, something we don’t have to do if we practice. If we practice we get very fluent at something and it requires almost no mental effort, like driving and listening to the radio…

When you are trying to strain your memory or when we have to do something remotely difficult we have to stop doing something else… Mental and physical energy is more connected than you imagine….We can’t keep mental processes entirely separate from each other. If we are doing routine things that is fine, but if we do something non-routine suddenly other parts of the brain start to engage and interfere with routine things like walking.

So the next time you try to respond to an email on your smartphone while listening to your colleague talk about his latest achievement, you should stop and ask yourself which of the two mental processes you really want to engage in. Your brain is better equipped to handle one complex process instead of two. So is it more practical to respond to that email with your undivided attention? Remember the destructive potential of reply all? When you accidentally used it to declare your undying love for Arijit Singh to the entire sales team instead of just one colleague?

On top of the limitations of the brain, our memories are also fallible. Anupam was absolutely sure that his child’s first movie was Kung Fu Panda, till his wife showed him the photo she clicked next to an Iron Man cutout at the multiplex.

Our memory is weaker—much weaker—than we perceive it to be. For example, how much can you rely on mental images that are based on memory? Take a mental image of a striped tiger. Go ahead, form a powerful mental image of a tiger and then try to answer a simple question: how many stripes does your tiger have? That question cannot be answered. But all tigers have a definite number of stripes. Forget the number of stripes on a tiger, sometimes we can’t even remember the combination of the number lock on our cycles. And we won’t even get into how we have faulty memories of what our spouses wore on special occasions.

Like the flawed and incomplete image we have of the tiger in our head, most of our memories are manufactured by us—they have a lot less to do with what really happened than we would like to believe. We imagine our past to a significant extent, and in doing so, we invent memories, as well as feelings such as nostalgia.

The practical implications of the mind’s limitations

There are two clear implications of the limitations of our minds and the fallibility of our memories: first, we are bad decision-makers and second, our minds can be manipulated easily.

Let’s consider the first one. There are bad, even random, decisions. Faced with the same choice in the same circumstances on two consecutive days, we might take two totally different decisions. One day, we took Tulsi Pipe Road from Bandra to Lower Parel and the next day we took the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Both decisions make perfect sense to us and have the same goal—reaching work on time. And yet, we didn’t have any reason for taking different routes.

The Indian government’s ever-changing rationalisation for demonetisation (black money, terrorism, corruption, counterfeiting, etc.), which were extensively documented in the Indian press, is a public demonstration of post-facto rationalisation of a policy decision which must have arisen from a neural storm in someone’s head. Legendary trader and philanthropist George Soros’s son, Robert Soros, claimed that his illustrious father’s trades weren’t based on grand theories of reflexivity but rather on his back pain. George Soros admitted as much in the book, Soros on Soros, in a section on how he found out when things were going wrong:

I feel the pain. I rely a great deal on animal instincts. When I was actively running the Fund, I suffered from backache. I used the onset of acute pain as a signal that there was something wrong in my portfolio. The backache didn’t tell me what was wrong—you know, lower back for short positions, left shoulder for currencies—but it did prompt me to look for something amiss when I might not have done so otherwise. That is not the most scientific way to run a portfolio.

Which brings us to the second issue, our vulnerability to manipulation. As our brain reaches almost every meaningful decision through neural war, it is highly prone to suggestion and manipulation (without realising that it is being manipulated).

“The conscious mind excels at telling itself the narrative of being in control.”

David Eagleman, neuroscientist

Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), i.e. a magnetic pulse which excites a part of the brain, to initiate movement in either the left or right hand to show this. Participants sat in front of a computer screen and were told to raise their right or left hand as the screen cued the colours red, yellow and green. At red, participants made their decision of right or left hand and activated this decision when the lights turned green.

Then, a twist was introduced. A TMS pulse was used when the colour changed to yellow. The pulse was specifically designed made participants more likely to lift their right hand. Interestingly enough, the participants thought that they changed their decision of their own free will, even though the TMS was influencing their decision. As Eagleman notes, “The conscious mind excels at telling itself the narrative of being in control.”

Taking a shortcut

So far, we have shown that our brains have limited power and our memories are fallible. The fallout of this is that we are lousy decision-makers and prone to manipulation. If you’re wondering how we survive despite these limitations, the answer is by using heuristics, simple shortcuts that our brains use to simplify the world for us.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. These shortcuts or mental rules of thumb help us make decisions and solve simple problems quickly. The problem is that heuristics can also manifest as biases or even delusions.

As toddlers, we loved hearing stories; as grown-ups, we love believing them. Our brain indulges us in our desire to see the world in black and white just as our body indulges us in our desire to have junk food and skip gym sessions. Unfortunately, many of our stories are based on heuristics as mental illusions and biases.  

Cultural stereotypes, for example, reduce our understanding of different people to superficial traits. For a country as diverse and as culturally rich as India, we do a disservice to our own countrymen when we limit our understanding to generalities. For example, the stereotype of Marwaris and Gujaratis as are great at business, which totally ignores the huge amounts of wealth created by entrepreneurs elsewhere, such as in the south. And in stock markets, the “Delhi discount” was used to denigrate and ascribe lower valuations for stocks of companies belonging to promoters in the north.

Cultural stereotypes aren’t the only damaging heuristics. Another example is attributing success to the greatness of one person—or the “superhero as the great leader”—which is prevalent in sport, business and politics.

As long as we have been following cricket, we have seen an obsession in the Indian media about the heroic Indian cricket captain, his batting, his personal life and his on-field decisions (all “his”, of course, because nobody ever talked about the women’s team). A Martian reading the Indian press would believe that Indian cricket’s success at any point in time hinges largely on the abilities (or lack thereof) of the cricket captain.

In the 1970s, India was awful at one-day internationals (ODIs). Then, in the early 1980s, we started improving and famously won the World Cup in 1983. After that, the steady arch of improvement in our win-loss ratio in ODIs continued. In fact, the improvement continues to this day.

Along the way, we had several successful captains. In spite of these leaders having had several high points in their career (the 1983 World Cup for Kapil Dev, the 1995 Asia Cup for Mohammad Azharuddin, the 2003 World Cup final for Sourav Ganguly and the 2011 World Cup for MS Dhoni) and in spite of the underlying 40-year win-loss trend being positive, each of these leaders went through phases where they were seen as less than ideal. During these phases, they were slammed for all sorts of reasons—loss of form, advancing age, decadent lifestyles.

Were any of these captains solely responsible for the long-term improving trend in our win-loss ratio? Arguably not. Our success is a combination of many factors that have shaped the sport over the years—from our coaching facilities to the fitness regime and the diet of our players, a larger role for technology and, finally, the financial packages offered to players.

Yes, the captains are important, but they are important in a very narrow, localised context of three to four years around their captaincy. They are not nearly as important as the underlying trend of the structural improvement in Indian cricket. In fact, the captains themselves are products of that trend.

There is no way that India could have produced a player as fit, as driven, as aggressive as Virat Kohli (the current captain) in the 1970s. In the India that we grew up in, enabling facilities like high-quality gyms didn’t even exist outside of five-star hotels. Kohli is part of the same structural trend that has given us a wonderful Under-19 World Cup winning team with players who are streets ahead of the age group opposition.

However, it is hard to enjoy a narrative around a structural time trend. We need the glory and glamour of a dashing leader either leading us to victory or cruelly betraying our trust. We have an emotional need to dramatise and personalise a trend that is, in reality, underpinned by steady, institutional improvements.

This behavioural need of ours is something which politicians of all shades in all countries exploit (e.g. US President Donald Trump saying that “the US economy has done better under me than under [former president Barack] Obama; hence I am a better macro manager than Obama”).

As political scientist Archie Brown says in his insightful book The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, “The idea that the more power one individual leader wields, the more we should be impressed by that leader is, I shall argue, an illusion, whether we are talking about democracies, authoritarian regimes or the hybrid regimes which fall in between. Effective government is necessary everywhere. But process matters. When corners are cut because one leader is sure he knows best, problems follow and they can be on a disastrous scale.”

And yet, we search for that hero. When Tina Turner sings in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, a movie from our childhood:

We don’t need another hero, we don’t need to know the way home,
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome
Looking for something we can rely on
There’s got to be something better out there.

We hear the citizens of today’s world shout out loud “No, no, no—we desperately need a strongman to take us to the promised land.”

Don’t get us wrong. A single person can do many things. There is no doubting our capability as humans. But what we can achieve as groups of people working towards a common purpose—good or bad—transcends the ability of a single person. This is why institutions outlast individuals.

And so…

What can we do to deal with the fact that the human mind is not a computer, the fact that faced with an identical decision in identical circumstances on two consecutive days, the brain can make different choices? What can we do mitigate the fact that even when faced with simple decisions our brain goes into a tizzy?

Prolonged practice and persistent skill improvement have a marked impact on our brains

Repetitive practice allows us to reduce the amount of neural processing activity and generate more consistent outcomes. Science has shown that we are able to, quite literally, mould our brains through practice and intense application. The brain is plastic—not just in childhood but right through adulthood, it changes physically. Prolonged practice and persistent skill improvement have a marked impact on our brains.

Let’s go back to our example of driving. We talked about how we often make sub-optimal decisions with regards to routes, or brainlessly rely on GPS. The men and women who drive the famous black cabs of London are specifically trained to avoid both of these behaviours. They spend years memorising every street and back alley in the city. Then they have to sit for and pass a tortuous exam called “The Knowledge”, as part of which they are repeatedly given two obscure points in the city, and have to immediately come up with the best route.

Neural imaging has allowed psychologists to see how the brains of these taxi drivers change as they go through the long process of memorising thousands of routes, then passing the Knowledge and then—even more interestingly—becoming experts in the decade after they have passed the test.

As we noted in the previous instalment in this series, focused effort and deliberate practice are what pay off in the long run. Not only does this help you build up solid skills, but above and beyond that, it allows you to function more efficiently, with less mental stress. It makes things simpler.

And that, we believe, is the key to dealing with our many mental limitations—simplicity. In the next article in this series, we will build on this concept and delve deep into how the Simplicity Paradigm helps us tackle navigate complex decisions with what seems like ease. Stay tuned.

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