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.
In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright explains how training in certain areas changes us. “Training our instincts is like feeding our subconscious. It grants us more informed, helpful knee-jerk reactions, rather than blind and potentially damaging impulses.” For examples, Wright writes about the ways that experienced auto mechanics are diagnose vehicle problems in one area of an engine based on a signal in a different area of the engine and he writes about learning to cook in six months and having a new understanding and appreciation for raw ingredients that can be cooked together to make a meal. In isolated cases, things we don’t know about and don’t understand at all can become things that give us clues and slight insights based on our experience and knowledge.
Recently, Tyler Cowen interviewed Ezekiel Emanuel for his podcast, Conversations with Tyler, and I was struck by Emanuel’s efforts to learn and engage with something new each year. He has recently learned how to make his own jam and chocolate and in the interview talked about the insights and unexpected things that he has gained by trying something completely new. He doesn’t always stick with everything he learns and tries, but by applying himself in a lot of different areas, he picks up new perspectives, meets new people, and gains a new appreciation for something that was foreign to him in the past.
The lessons from Wright and Emanuel are things we should keep in mind and try to build into our own lives. When we only have a vague understanding or idea of how the world works, we are going to move through it making assumptions that are not warranted. We will act in ways that seem intuitively obvious for us, but our way of moving through the world may be as foolish as asking the French why they haven’t had an air tanker drop water on Notre-Dame. Ignorance can be quite costly in our own lives and in the negative externalities that we push onto the rest of the world, and as we become more responsible with relationships, families, and businesses that count on us, ignorance can be quite costly for the rest of society. Becoming aware of areas where we have no expertise and no training is important so that we can identify where we might have these knee-jerk reactions that won’t help anyone. Awareness of our ignorance can help us choose what we want to focus on, what we want to learn about, and what would help us become a better person for our society.
On the opposite side of the coin, as we become more expert in a given area, we will be able to better sense what is happening around us and make choices and decisions that we can’t explain but that work properly. It is something we should strive toward, but all the while we should recognize where our expertise falls short and how bad assumptions could harm us and others.