Laughter

Have you ever tried to laugh at something that wasn’t funny because social conventions called for laughter? You probably found it a little awkward and your laugh probably didn’t sound the most generous or real. Humans are really good at laughter, but we are not very good at consciously understanding and being aware of our laughter. On the flip side of forced laughter, have you ever laughed uncontrollably at an inappropriate time? Somewhere, our brains know when it is appropriate or not to laugh, and sometimes we can control that a bit, but oftentimes, our laughter is instinctive or stems from someplace other than our conscious thought.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “while we may not understand or control our laughter, out brains are experts at it. They know when to laugh, at which stimuli, and they get it right most of the time, with inappropriate laughter bursting forth only on occasion. Our brains also instinctively know how to interpret the laughter of others, whether by laughing in return or otherwise reacting appropriately. Its only to us – our conscious, introspective minds – that laughter remains a mystery.”

 

Recently I have been fascinated with how little we understand about our own brains. We move through the world believing that we understand anything about ourselves and the world we move through, but it is clear that there is a lot of machinery in the brain that almost none of us actually understand or recognize. Laughter is a fascinating point because it demonstrates something that is so natural to us, something we would assume we control and understand with ease, but that involves complex processes that are far beyond what any of us realize.

 

I cannot help but believe that we should not trust our brains and the first thoughts that come to mind. We should not expect our understanding of what is happening to be the most accurate. We should always assume there is more taking place than what we can grasp. Laughter is an example of a situation that conveys a lot of messages that are below the level of our conscious minds. We pick up a lot of information in the laughter of others, but we would probably have trouble explaining exactly what information we took away from the laugh of another person. In the same way, there is a lot about the world we know and don’t know, and we should recognize how much of it lays beyond our conscious awareness.

Non-Verbal Communication & Messages

Yesterday I wrote a bit about how non-verbal communication often happens below the level of our consciousness. However, just because it is something we don’t consciously recognize doesn’t mean that the messages conveyed are meaningless. I wrote yesterday about how non-verbal communication can allow us to communicate some messages slyly, implying things and making our intentions clear without us having to say what we really mean. Today, another quote on non-verbal communication from Simler and Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain expands on the role and meaning of non-verbal communication.

 

“Body language … is mostly not arbitrary. Instead, nonverbal behaviors are meaningfully, functionally related to the messages they’re conveying.” We have shared physical reactions to emotional states of being that seem to emphasize and align with the emotional state we are in. Across cultures, the authors explain, while words and manners of verbal communication change, a lot of non-verbal communication ques remain constant. Emotional excitement may be displayed through loud exclamations and lots of arm or body movements. Interest in something may result in us staring at the interesting thing, with our eyes widening, potentially changing our field of view.

 

We do these things and respond to non-verbal messages without necessarily realizing we are doing so. Once we start to look for it, however, we can start to notice similar patterns in body language that convey messages that go along with (or perhaps contradict) the verbal messages that we also convey. We can learn that certain non-verbal cues have specific meanings and we can learn to present ourselves a certain way to help reinforce the language that we are trying to get across.

 

Recently, my wife and I adopted a puppy and started training her. In one of our first lessons, the instructor taught us a little about reading the dog’s body language and non-verbal communication. My wife and I now know to look for hair on the back of her neck standing up when she growls, so we know if she is growing in a playful way, or if she feels threatened. This was invisible to me before it was pointed out, even though on some level I probably could still tell the difference between the dog’s attitude.

 

We humans do the same things in some situations. We may playfully wrestle with a loved one or children, and while we might be making physically dominant gestures, there are aspects of our body language and non-verbal communication that demonstrate that everything is just fun play. We can be taught to recognize these types of non-verbal cues, but most of us probably just pick up on them automatically. I suspect that some of us are better than others at noticing these cues, and that it would be very helpful for others to have some explicit explanation of these cues. Ultimately, the important thing to remember is that communication is not just about the words we use, and that unconscious (often) behavior can be directly related and included in the messages we convey, even if our brains don’t fully realize it. A lot happens beneath the surface, and we should acknowledge this and acknowledge just how much our brains don’t see when things are happening right in front of us.

Press Secretaries

I have written in the past about the idea and model that our brains act as press secretaries, taking the information that comes into the mind and presenting it in a way that makes everything happening in the mind look as good as it possibly can. This idea comes back in Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain where the authors expand on the idea. They write,

 

“Above all, it’s the job of our brain’s Press Secretary to avoid acknowledging our darker motives – to tiptoe around the elephant in the brain. Just as a president’s press secretary should never acknowledge that the president is pursuing a policy in order to get reelected or to appease his financial backers, our brain’s Press Secretary will be reluctant to admit that we’re doing things for purely personal gain, especially when that gain may come at the expense of others. To the extent that we have such motives, the Press Secretary would be wise to remain strategically ignorant of them.”

 

I really like the way that the authors describe the role of the conscious part of our brains as acting as a press secretary. By keeping us consciously unaware of our motivations for action, we can be strategically ignorant of why we do what we do. Strategic ignorance is common when we pretend that the things we do don’t have external consequences for others, when we don’t want to face the reality of science, or when we just want to avoid doing some unappealing task. In most cases we probably recognize that we are not fooling anyone when we claim we don’t know what’s really happening, but at least it gives us a slight cushion to be comfortable while hoping that the negative consequences don’t come back to bite us.

 

Hanson and Simler continue the metaphor, “What’s more – and this is where things might start to gt uncomfortable-there’s a very real sense in which we are the Press Secretaries within our minds. In other words, the parts of the mind that we identify with, the parts we think of as our conscious selves…” It is easy to ignore the parts of ourselves that don’t align with the story we want to tell and present to the world about what great people we are. It turns out it is so easy because we are not consciously aware of those parts of ourselves. We are just the press secretary who is handed the script about all the great things happening within us.  We purposefully avoid those parts of us that look bad, because we don’t want to acknowledge they are there and have to explain ourselves in spite of those negative aspects of who we are. By simply ignoring those parts of us and sticking to the happy script, we can look great and feel great about the wonderful things we do, even if those wonderful things don’t measure up to the sanitized version we present to the world. There is a lot taking place behind the scenes, but lucky for us, we are just the front facing conscious press secretary who doesn’t see any of it.

Sabotage Information

“Our minds are built to sabotage information in order to come out ahead in social games.” In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways in which we act out of our own self-interest without acknowledging it. We are more selfish, more deceptive, and less altruistic than we would like to admit, even to ourselves. To keep us feeling good about what we do, and to make it easier to put on a benevolent face, our brains seem to deliberately distort information to make us look like we are honest, open, and acting with the best of intentions for everyone.

 

“When big parts of our minds are unaware of how we try to violate social norms, it’s more difficult for others to detect and prosecute those violations. This also makes it harder for us to calculate optimal behaviors, but overall, the trade-off is worth it.” As someone who thinks critically about Stoicism and believes that self-reflection and awareness are keys to success and happiness, this is hard to take in. It suggests that self-awareness is a bigger burden for social success than blissful unawareness. Being deluded about our actions and behaviors, Simler and Hanson suggest, helps us be better political animals and helps us climb the social hierarchy to attain a better mate, more status, and more allies. Self-awareness, their idea suggests, makes us more aware of the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, what we do, and why we do it, and makes it harder for us to lie and get ahead.

 

“Of all the things we might be self-deceived about, the most important are our own motives.” Ultimately, however, I think we will be better off if we can understand why we, and everyone else, believe the things we do and behave the way we do. Turning inward and recognizing how often we hide our motives and deceive ourselves and others about our actions can help us overcome bias. We can start to be more intentional about our decisions and think more critically about what we want to work toward. We don’t have to hate humanity because we lie and hide parts of ourselves from even ourselves, but we can better move through the world if we actually know what is going on. Before we become angry over a news story, before we shell out thousands of dollars for new toys, and before we make overt displays of charity, we can ask ourselves if we are doing something for legitimate reasons, or just to deceive others and appear to be someone who cares deeply about an issue or item. Slowly, we can counteract the negative externalities associated with the brain’s faulty perceptions, and we can at least make our corner of the world a little better.

The Undisguised Consciousness

“The unreal disguise of consciousness serves only to emphasize to me the existence of the undisguised unconsciousness.” Fernando Pessoa wrote this in The Book of Disquiet as he reflected on the way that people thought about and moved through the world around him. What Pessoa noted is that we act and behave as though we are consciously making decisions and guiding our lives while in reality we are often driven by unconscious forces that we are not aware of. For Pessoa, life was an every day struggle. He did not live in desolate poverty or have anything particular terrible happening in his life, but was cognizant of the stories people told about their lives and existence, and he could not bring himself to believe any particular story.

 

It seems like most people, most of the time, are not actually that considerate of the world around them. If we all were more considerate, capitalism would not be elevated in the United States to a quasi-religious stance. We would be able to take action on climate change. We probably would spend less time watching what celebrities were doing, and more time participating in a sport rather than watching and talking about other people playing a sport.

 

“Occasional hints that they might be deluding themselves–that and only that is what most men experience.”

 

I have been thinking about consciousness and our experiences quite a bit lately. In Considerations, Colin Wright encouraged us to think more deeply about world, and to see things beyond our initial reaction. Rob Reid has talked to guests in his podcast After On about the reality that our brains don’t sense the world as fully as they potentially could. There are senses we just don’t have that we observe in other living creatures. And in The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson discuss ways in which being deluded about reality can be an evolutionary advantage for us.

 

Most people that I meet don’t seem to be interested in thinking beyond their initial reaction to the world. Most people don’t really seem to consider the fact that they have a narrow band of senses through which they can experience the world. And most people don’t seem to be interested in the idea that we evolved to have an inaccurate picture of the universe because it helped us be socially deceptive. But I think it is powerful and important that we recognize how much is going on beyond the recognition of our conscious self. We should strive to have a full existence that helps encourage flourishing for others as well as for ourselves. We should strive to see reality for what it is, and cut through the stories we tell ourselves or that others tell for us. The more considerate we are, the more we can open others to the same reality, and hopefully start to counteract the unconscious immediacy of our reactions to the world which is encouraged by social media and indeed by our brains’ very nature.

Care and Concern for Others

I have written about the ways in which colorblindness has been adopted across the nation, but does not actually lead to the outcomes that we would expect. Rather than helping us create better situations for everyone, colorblindness is an excuse that allows for disparate outcomes based on race, as long as we say that our policies and systems were designed to be race neutral. Colorblindness is effectively ignoring the reality of other people and our differences and shutting some people out of our lives.

 

As an alternative to colorblindness, Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow proposes the idea of color consciousness. She describes a shift to color consciousness from color blindness in detail. “The shift may, in fact, come as something of a relief, as it moves our collective focus away from a wholly unrealistic goal to one that is within anyone’s reach right now. After all, to aspire to colorblindness is to aspire to a state of being in which you are not capable of seeing racial difference—a practical impossibility for most of us. The shift also invites a more optimistic view of human capacity. The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.”

 

Color consciousness is the idea that we can see race and be aware of our race, other people’s race, and the differences between us and our experiences of the world. When we are colorblind we are not able to accept the disparate outcomes of our policies, and we are encouraged to forget and mitigate the past. Rather than try to understand how our present moment is shaped by past events such as slavery and Jim Crow segregation, colorblindness assumes that we have progressed beyond such evils and live in a society where everything has been fixed, so race no longer matters. Color consciousness instead looks at the past to understand where we are today, and is able to be more thoughtful and considerate when developing new policies and strategies to help the lives of everyone.

A Theory of Others

How much do we value other people, and how much should we value other people? At the core of ethics lies this question, and philosopher Peter Singer addresses it in his book The Most Good You Can Do. Singer refers to Canadian philosopher Richard Keshen’s ideas to build his vision of what ethics look like in an age of reason and tackles questions of how we should think about other people. In his book Singer writes, “At the core of the reasonable person’s ethical life, according to Keshen, is a recognition that others are like us and therefore, in some sense, their lives and their well-being matter as much as our own.”

 

This piece of advice is very similar to the Golden Rule, but with one notable distinction. The Golden Rule puts us at the center, focusing on how we want to be treated, and then expanding outward. Singer’s foundation for an ethical person starts with other people and a recognition that the lives of others are just as important in the world as our own life. It builds on common humanity and pushes past areas where see human ethics frequently fall short such as, tribalism, merit, and perceived responsibility. If we cannot start from a place where we accept that other people’s lives are as valuable as our own, we cannot move forward with truly equitable ethical foundations.

 

Singer’s ethical base also reminds me of childhood developmental studies and Theory of Mind, which focuses on a young child’s early recognition that other children and people have thoughts and feelings. This recognition builds until we are able to perceive, predict, and interpret the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of others. From our own consciousness we can begin approaching other people as if they are rational conscious individuals just like us, even though we can never see their consciousness or prove that they have thoughts just like we do. Ultimately, Theory of Mind, a recognition of conscious thought in other people (often also projected onto other living and even inanimate objects around us) begins to shape the ethical foundation of our life.

 

This seems to be built into Singer’s worldview through recognition and reflection of life and consciousness. On a recent episode of Sam Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, guest Yuval Noah Harari discussed Rousseau who said, “I think, therefore I am,” but he was critical of Rousseau’s fictitious “I,” or the self  created by Rousseau out of nowhere and built on in story. Harari explained that the conclusion Rousseau should have reached is simply, “Thought exists, therefore thought exists.” This view does not diminish the reality of our consciousness, but helps us understand that the “I” discussed by Rousseau is simply the story that thought creates. We know that thought exists so it is not unreasonable to believe that others can think, and if others think and can build their own story to create a fictional “I,” then Singer’s ethical foundation still exists and is perhaps bolstered as we recognize the stories we tell ourselves and  as we accept that our thought is in no way fundamentally different from the conscious thought of others which gives rise to our imaginary “I.” Ultimately, we must realize that we are limited in how we experience the world and that others experience the world in the same way. Increasing our ability to think of others and interpret the stories they create for themselves helps us to further our ethical thinking and behavior.