Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, Myths and Legends
Lay Down my
Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a
Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, myths and Legends
Lay Down my
Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a
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Evolve Holistic Development Trust
How we make decisions
A talk given to the Dunedin Spiritualist Church July 2007
There are many psychological theories about how we make decisions. I
want to present my personal views and how this relates to a spiritual
perspective on life.
One prominent theory states that when an event happens, we have
thoughts about the event, then we have feelings about it and then we
decide how we will respond. If we want to change people’s behaviour, we
therefore need to focus on changing their thoughts, which will change
the emotions, which will then change the decisions they make about what
they will do. This is a very useful theory called CBT or Cognitive
Behaviour Theory, which is extremely widely used around the world. From
my point of view, the only problem with this theory is that it is
wrong. It is still extremely useful, but not for the reasons that most
people who use CBT think.
There are a number of levels at which we can respond to the world
outside. We can have a bodily instinctual response, an emotional
response, a thinking response, or a spiritual response to anything that
has happened. CBT says we first have a thinking reaction, but let us
think about that a moment.
A reflex action like tapping someone just below the kneecaps making
their leg jerk out only involves two nerve cells. You tap the person
just below the knee and a message is sent up a nerve cell to the spine.
The response is automatically sent back down another nerve cell making
the knee jerk. It is simple and immediate. We can not turn this off.
Instincts are much the same. If a certain event happens, then there is
a predetermined response that automatically happens. The response does
not have to be learned; we are born with it. Again this is very quick,
because there is not much processing in the brain needed to make it
Next is an emotional response, which is mostly generated from a part of
our brain called the limbic system. That is slower that the more
automatic responses, because the brain has more work to do, but it is
still very rapid. After that is the thinking response. This requires
vast amounts of processing in the nerve cells in the brain to think, so
it happens more slowly. Thinking, compared to other levels of response
is therefore slow. I want to leave talking about our spiritual response
for a few moments.
Another way of looking at this is to consider how it was for creatures
in our world that we have evolved from. In the natural world being able
to respond quickly often marked the difference between life and death.
If our life is threatened, being able to respond very quickly will be
very useful to help us survive. If we have more time we can use slower
mind processes to work out a better response, but there is not point
having wonderful thinking skills if you are already in the jaws of a
sabre toothed tiger. Our automatic responses therefore kick in first
and after that we modify our response as we are able.
I have simplified the picture of what happens in the brain somewhat,
because the nerve cells responsible for the different levels of
responding from bodily to thinking are heavily connected. The different
levels are constantly sending messages to each other. Emotions are
being modified by thoughts, thoughts are modified by emotions, bodily
reactions affect thoughts, thoughts can change bodily reactions, etc.
and this all happens very quickly.
This means that even though the first response we consider is a bodily
response, then an emotional response, and finally a thinking response,
the thinking response can quickly over-rule other possible responses.
We can imagine being faced by a police officer and feel angry with him
for stopping us. Our initial emotional inclination might be to attack
the police officer, but we know that would not be a wise way to
approach the situation and we use our thinking brain to hold ourselves
back from a course of action that would not be positive for us.
Every action we see today as a crime has at some point in our evolution
been absolutely critical to our survival on this planet in order that
we can be here today. For 99.999% of human history, being the most
violent, cheating, conniving, stealing creature you could possibly be,
made it most likely you and your offspring will survive.
The initial habit that gets activated is one that worked early in our
evolutionary history. Violence is deeply embedded in our being. It is a
bit like original sin; the idea that we are born sinners. There is a
destructive violent side to our being that we are born with.
There is some interesting research that has been done recently that
reflects this. Using fMRI scans to map physical changes in the brain
while people undertake tasks. It has been shown that we have actually
made any decision about a half a second before we are aware that we
have made the decision. Even before you are aware of having the
thoughts to decide something, it is too late. We can change our mind
later, but a decision has been made.
What this all suggests is that we do not so much have “free will” as we
have “free won’t”. Rather than deciding what we will do, our automatic,
habitual and emotional responses are activated first, but then we get
the opportunity to veto or modify that decision by using our thinking.
We can use our “free won’t” to stop just going on with our first
inclination and stop to consider alternative responses.
So, we can choose to let violence control our lives, or we can choose
to be in control of our lives. It is important to realise that not
deciding to over-ride our primitive response is choosing violence and
deceit just the same.
Every human being needs a stable sense of self. What we were yesterday
needs to be essentially the same as we are today and as we will be
tomorrow. We need a consistent sense of identity. To have a sense of
self that is too fragmented is to lose one’s mind. Mentally unstable
people often have their mind broken into too many fragments to maintain
a stable sense of identity and they fall apart.
We form our sense of self through the way we interpret the experiences
we have. We might notice that most other people are taller than us, so
being short becomes a part of our identity. We find we are more
aggressive than most people, so being aggressive becomes a part of our
identity. From the mass of interpretations we make about our world and
our experiences we form an overall identity.
Life is ever changing and that means that sometimes we do things that
do not match our sense of who we are. When we should be using our free
won’t, we do not. A more primitive response appears instead. For
example, a person may not usually have violence as a part of their
sense of self. If, for whatever reason, the person fails to use their
free won’t in a certain situation and uses violence, they are in danger
of becoming fragmented.
In order to avoid losing our mind, we use some mental tricks to patch
up the gaps and breaks. We distort the way we interpret the event.
Firstly, we can minimise what has happened. We convince ourselves that
we only pushed the person rather than punched them perhaps. Next we can
justify our action, thinking. “I am not usually violent, but I had no
choice”. Then again, we can blame other people. “I would not have hit
him if I wasn’t provoked” or we can even deny the experience all
So, to summarise the process. We experience an event. We have an
immediate response, which we can choose to override by using our
thinking. If we do not override the immediate response and go ahead
with it, we tend to act against our true self. We must therefore use
some mental games to avoid being too fragmented.
This patches us up to avoid fragmentation, but leaves us scarred. Our
sense of self is distorted. The next time we make a decision, it is
shaped by our sense of self, only now our sense of self is itself
twisted out of shape and the distorted thinking coming from a distorted
self becomes a part of who we are. This distorted thinking becomes a
What CBT does get right, and what makes it so useful is that it
identifies the thinking brain as the part of our brain, most able to
influence future behaviour.
If we undergo some form of counselling or other therapy, we aim to undo
the patches and fit the self back they way it should be. We tend to
avoid doing this because of the pain of reopening the wound.
Albert Einstein once said we cannot solve a problem at the level at
which it is created. In other words, if we have problems with emotions,
we cannot solve that problem with emotions. If we approach and angry
person with anger, they will often just get worse. We must move up a
level to the thinking brain, where we can reason and talk with the
person to reduce their anger. Above the thinking level is the spiritual
level. Having access to our spiritual level therefore allows us to be
much better equipped to find solutions to our problems. We not only
have more solutions available to deal with our emotions, but we can
resolve problems that come from our intellect.
Another way of looking at the problem is a more holistic
approach. We usually think our thoughts and feelings happen in our
brain. Our brain is not separate from our whole nervous system. The
nerves in our toes are as much a part of our nervous system as the grey
matter in our brain. We could say that some of our brains are in our
toes. We can not talk of our brain without talking about the blood that
supplies it and the hormone system that controls so much of our
behaviour. In short the whole body is one whole system. Everything that
happens in it is so heavily interlinked with other parts of the body.
Therefore it is more accurate to say we think with our whole body,
because our whole body is involved directly or indirectly in the
process of thinking.
It is even more than that. Just as a tree has no meaning without the
earth it sits in, the water that comes from the weather and the
sunlight from the sun, a human being does not exist separate from the
environment in which it lives. When we think, our environment is
involved, so we could say when we think, our whole environment and us,
mind, body, soul and spirit is involved. This is a sobering thought
that reminds us of the power of our mind. Every thought is linked to
everything that is.
Getting back to our spiritual response to events. This is harder to
determine because there is no readily identifiable structure within the
nervous system responsible for it as there are for the other responses.
We might thinking logically from what we have heard that a spiritual
response is even slower. Perhaps it is. Certainly we do not always
respond to events in a spiritual way and it is particularly difficult
to do consistently. I believe intuition comes from our spirit.
Intuition is when we just know something to be certainly so, when we
have not had evidence from the physical world to tell us that it is so.
Clairvoyance is a form of intuition. I believe our intuition is driving
our perceptions when we become aware of seemingly random events being
linked together in meaningful ways. Who knows where our spiritual
response comes from and just how it works? Is it slow or can it be
There is one difficulty with intuition and that is that there is a gut
level of knowing that appears to be intuition, but is actually an
emotional level of knowing. When we operate from this gut feeling our
clairvoyance will be inaccurate, we will be superstitiously believing
events are linked spiritually when they are not and we will be
susceptible to believing we are far more spiritually evolved than we
really are. It is very important to tell the difference, but it is not
easy; we can flip from one to the other extremely quickly.
In summary, what we think really does matter. At any moment we have the
opportunity to use our mind in positive ways to enhance our world, but
we must overcome the very strong temptation to take the easy way out
and fail to exercise our ability to over-ride that habit and replace
with thoughts which have spiritual integrity. Our mind is linked to
everything in the universe and is truly powerful. Only then can we
become all that we can be and reveal our true spiritual nature to
ourselves and the world about us.