눈치 Quest (Part 2: Research)

Being a technical, engineer/science kind of person, I always start off with lots of research, which is probably why it’s taking me so long to learn Korean. You could call this my literature review. Specifically, I read (or listened to) several books having to do with social neuroscience, all thanks to the wonder that is Overdrive. In truth, I did not initially plan to do this. I was reading a book called “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” by Jeremy Dean, and in the Goodreads review, a reviewer recommended “Your Brain At Work” by David Rock, so I read that, and off into the rabbit hole I went. From there, I read two more books by Daniel Goleman called “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” and “Social Intelligence.” On the advice of Jeremy on his Motivate Korean YouTube channel, I also read a book by Seth Godin called “Linchpin” (although Jeremy recommended “The Icarus Deception”). I also watched several YouTube videos on the various subjects and am currently reading “The Organized Mind” by Daniel Levitin.

There are so many fascinating things I learned while reading all of these, and it really made me realize that the brain is both amazing and scary at the same time. One very important point is that the human brain craves social connection and is hard-wired for it. This is one of the main points of Daniel Goleman’s “Social Intelligence” book. It is necessary for our survival, as we are so dependent on our parents when we are young.

The brain has two types of processes, for the most part, conscious and automatic. Most people tend to think everything they do is a conscious decision, but in fact, much of what we do is driven by the automatic parts of the brain because it’s so much easier. Daniel Goleman refers to automatic processes as the low road, as they come from the lower parts of the brain (the limbic system), and the conscious processes as the high road, referring to the geographic location of the brain parts controlling these processes. Our emotions are controlled in the lower parts, and these parts have closer proximity to the nervous system and react faster to incoming stimuli. So when someone does something to make us angry, sad, happy, etc., these parts cause chemical reactions in our body before we even have a chance to react. In the case of empathy, this can be a good thing, as our body, using mirror neurons, reads the emotions of others and mirrors those feelings in us as well. This allows us to relate to them, understand them, and (hopefully) react in an appropriate way. However, it also can cause us to have very negative reactions when someone is having highly negative emotions, and in fact, the brain tends to react much more strongly to negative emotions and the results last longer than for positive ones. This is probably because when this part of the brain was evolving, it was much more important to react when you were being chased by a saber-tooth tiger than when you saw a pretty sunset. The lower part of the brain also evolved much earlier than the upper portion, and it is much more efficient. Seth Godin refers to it (namely the amygdala), as the lizard brain.

In terms of attention, the brain had has two main modes of operation, the focused mode and the default mode, also called the narrative mode by David Rock. The default mode is the daydreaming mode. This is important for creativity as the mind jumps around, figuring out connections between complex interactions. It is called the default mode because the brain goes into this mode by default. It is much less energy intensive. However, when you need to get work done or you need to focus on what another person is saying, you need to be able to switch out of this mode and into the focused mode. The focused mode is much more taxing on the brain, as we all know. In this mode, we really can only focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking is actually just constant switching of attention and is very inefficient. This relates to 눈치 in that if you are talking to someone while reading something on your cell phone, you really are not paying attention. This Seoulistic/TTMIK video demonstrates that pretty well.

The last main topic relevant to 눈치 is that the brain is like a filter or lens. It uses past experiences, biases, and perceived patterns to filter out or even change incoming information. Rob Scott does a great job of describing this filter in this Google Talk. It also, as Daniel Levitin focuses on, loves to organize and group things. This is useful for organizing our possessions and to-do lists, but very dangerous when we start organizing people. When trying to understand what others are saying and feeling, it is all too easy for our brain to go the easy route and say “This person is in group X, so they must be feeling Y,” or worse “This person is in group X, and I am in group Y, so why should I care about them.”

So when it comes to 눈치, we have some things working for us. We are hard-wired for empathy, with our mirror neurons giving us emotional feedback so that we can relate to others. We crave social connection, so we have plenty of motivation to have positive social interactions with others. Unfortunately, on the flip side, we have a lot working against us. First, especially now in this age of endless distractions, few of us are able to be fully attentive to others, and without attention, we won’t receive the signals we need for empathy. Second, even if we do receive those signals, the brain will try to distort those based on our biases and past experiences and make us go against our instincts. Instead of giving that much needed hug to a male friend, the brain will tell us “Oh, men don’t like showing emotions. Just give him a beer and talk about football.” Even worse is the amygdala, filling us with anxiety and fear that our instincts are wrong and the other person will hate us for our reaction, laugh at us, and make us look stupid.

So how do we overcome these things? Well, from what I’ve read so far, our one big tool is mindfulness training. Mindfulness training teaches the mind how to switch between the default and focused modes, so that we can remain attentive when needed. It also allows us to be more cognizant of when the low road is taking over, making us feel irrational fear and anxiety, and allow us to make our decisions using the high road. Mindfulness meditation is one way to do this training, but as David Rock describes in this article, “You can practice mindfulness while you are eating, walking, talking, doing just about anything…” He relays this quote from John Teasdale: “Mindfulness isn’t difficult: the hard part is remembering to do it.

These highlight the most important parts of what I’ve learned so far, but certainly are not all encompassing. In the posts to follow, I’ll discuss how things are going and any new things I’ve learned. Hopefully, there will be more successes than failures, but I’ll do my best to share both. I’ve already been trying to incorporate this knowledge into my life, albeit with mixed results. Mistakes are certainly expected in this learning process, but I won’t let fear keep me from growing.

Disclaimer: I’m not a neuro-scientist, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

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