Victor MacGill Chaos and Complexity
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A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

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My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

Line

My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
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Mandelbrot Set  Complexity
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Mandelbrot Set  Spirituality
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of all talks

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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 happen.

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 together.

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 habit pattern.

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 immediate?

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.

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