We are a product of our environment
…but we can choose that environment.
TLDR: It’s all in the title.
Now I know you are already aware that we were products of our environment, so you are ahead of the game, but stick with me and let’s see if I can unpack that statement, taking the words and turning it into understanding. To do that I am going to use one analogy, and that is of the computer. I have often seen the brain referenced as our computer and I don’t think it is an unfair analogy to keep with you through life. Because if you understand this analogy, one becomes capable of upgrading oneself.
A computer is a collection of parts which function when energy is passed through them, but the crucial point is this, that they only function based on the code that runs them.
I’m sure you have made the leap already and if you think you know what is coming then maybe your code is working well. As with a computer, our brains also need ‘code’. We have parts that have functionality built into us at a DNA level, this could be like the functionality that is built into a graphics card in your computer. A graphics card has the functionality to produce the graphics/text/video on-screen but it does not create them. It merely does what the CPU (central processing unit) tells it to do. DNA codes basic functionality into parts of our body, so we can breathe and digest food, but it is our CPU, the brain, that runs these processes. Without a brain, we cease to function. I won’t go any deeper into this analogy, as I am not a biologist, but this is the main concept of this article.
When we were born some of us were lucky enough to be brought into a family unit, this family unit is typically made up of other humans (unless your name is Tarzan). And therefore these humans are the first people who start to write the code that makes us who we are. There are many variations of this code from great to tragic. Some people never met their parents, some were born with life altering disability and some were born into royalty and fame, everyone had some sort of beginning and that early code is the foundation on which the rest of you has been built.
Assuming that you have a typical childhood (whatever that means) you were likely programmed by adults, which are parents or teachers. We are also programmed by other outside influencers like siblings, peers and society at large. The adults (who were once programmed themselves, keep that in mind) generally try to programme our forming minds with useful skills that will help us in life. These go beyond talking, maths and motor skills to more complex programmes like morals, ethics and creativity.
Once these foundational applications are loaded onto the hard drive of our brain we can begin to add extra complexity like self-awareness. Each new skill building on the code until we became aware enough to start putting in your own code. And this is where it gets interesting. If we view ourselves as a machine with a code base, adding code like skills and knowledge, life gets a little easier to grasp. Some of us may have to try harder than others to acquire particular skills. However, 99% of us have brains smart enough to understand most things. For instance, you are actually looking at letter forms, which are just marks on a screen, then you are applying a meaning to the sequence of those marks. Meaning you can actually make words, and then interpret those words into understanding. Which simply means you already have the built in hardware to add the new code (read; abilities). We use our eyes and ears as our main ports for uploading new code, but all our senses work in the same way. Data received through sensor or port, then processed by our CPU.
So with that said, we can become anything right?…Err yeah. However usually what stops us is fear of failure, or the analysis of time to benefit ratio. YOLO!
The science fiction film The Matrix was a hugely popular series of films at the turn of the millennium. In the film many of the characters, such as Neo, Morpheus and Trinity could plug themselves directly into a computer and download skills like Kung Fu into their brains. Whilst this was and still is fiction, there will be a day when it is actually practical. However if you actually look at it in light of this article, we’re all “downloading skills” today. This might be through books, online courses, teachers, experiences or our peers. And if you want to get to the level of mastery Neo has, then Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, argues that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice will get you to world-class. Ok, so we’re currently downloading over 0.1k dial-up as opposed to fibre optic. And it does feel epicly slow, but we are actually learning everyday, installing new code, whether we like it or not.
Which leads me to another interesting and contentious part of the idea, which is;
We do not get to chose everything we download, even as adults.
As a child we chose very little of how our environment impacts our code, in fact in the early years I’d say we have no choice. But then, around about 2 years old we find that code that is ‘choice’ and we start to clash with our parents choices, hence the “terrible twos”, if you have kids you’ll understand. But as adults we may chose to avoid negative people, we may chose to avoid the mainstream media, we may chose to avoid misers, slugareds, crooks and politicians. However part of our brain has a function, that we cannot control, which places information, values and opinions on our “hard drive”, that we have no way of filtering. Scary I know!
That part of the brain is the subconscious. The subconscious is like a background task that runs at the Operating System level of your computer brain. There is a massive throughput of data going on in our brains and we only have so much capacity to manage that. Our conscious mind can only process a fraction of what we see and hear, but our subconscious mind can do this 500k times faster. To put it another way, only 0.01% of our brain activity is processed by our conscious mind. This means that as you walk down the street you see and hear things that you do not consciously process, this might be the opinion of someone talking about politics, or the images on the front covers of the tabloid papers as you pass a newsagent, or it could be the unconscious analysis of your friends comments on social media. All of this information passes through your mind and although we have not found a meaningful way of recalling it all at will, it is believed that much of that data is still there.
This leads to all sorts of changes and manipulations around our conscious and unconscious thoughts. Things that quite easily impact our world view. These ‘environmental’ impacts, might be societal, geographical or theological. At a societal level concepts that are passed between us without much thought might be the way we treat gender or age, ethics and political leaning. At a geographical level it maybe that we have a certain mindset based on our isolation as an island nation or our proximity to the Equator or the Arctic circle may influence mindset. At a theological level much of the world has a mindset that believes, in various ways, that we human beings are not the only ‘beings’. Religion is societal and geographical, you may never know another concept of god/spirituality based on strictness of the religion of your country. However all of the above is a learnt code, passed down from generation to generation. These may be logical or illogical but all of it is, unavoidably so, learnt.
If we are a product of our environment, are there parts of this ‘machine’, the body, that influence our code? Giving some of us greater abilities than others? I dare say so yes, but I am not a biologist or a scientist (just to be clear, no one is born a scientist, it is a learned code). I can only go off a piece of ‘code’ I learned long ago, that code is ‘logic’. My logic code, says that adaption is a fundamental part of what makes us human, and we can see through sheer volume of numbers, that the likelihood of being good at something is often correlated with the biological machine. What do I mean by that? Well tall people are often in positions of authority. Tall people might play sports, where being tall is a bonus. Whereas there are not many tall Jockeys. In the gym you see big framed people lifting heavy weights and small framed people running or doing explosive actions.
Some of these are natural adaptations, but most are in fact learned through societal bias. For example, society thinks tall people are more authoritative. Why? Because when we were children, learning about authority from parents, they were much taller than us, so in turn we allow people who are tall to have authority over us. The school coach may see that a kid is taller than average for his age, and therefore closer to the basketball net, which gives his team an advantage. So the coach encourages the student to spend more time becoming good at basketball. The Jockey gets his job because the owner wants less weight on his horse, which gives the horse a better chance of winning. Are big framed people better at lifting weights than small people? Not necessarily. Are small people better at doing explosive exercise than bigger people, not necessarily, but across the board, that is what we see. Therefore it is likely that ‘biological adaptations’ are more like raw materials that can be turned into strength or explosive power more easily for one group over another, but it is the leaned code that accesses, uses and trains those raw materials.
There is also the hidden stuff, people with brains that are more or less developed in areas than others. This can lead to all sorts of variations, from the way we manage anger to those that have virtually no ability to empathise. To those who are more creative than others or those with a natural musical ear. Again what does any of that mean? Do I have a music muscle sat in my brain waiting to be trained? No. However there may be adaptations that come out of the way our brains are formed. Einstein’s brain was stolen (unbeknownst to his family) and preserved in some hope that we could somehow study one of the world’s greatest thinkers long after his death. So far one of the things scientists noticed was that his brain is slightly different to many other brains. Certain parts are vacant or only partially there and his prefrontal cortices were expanded. These physical attributes of his brain are understood to have made Einstein brilliant at complex thought experiments.
But would Einstein have become any of what we know of him today if it wasn’t for his father Hermann, who was also academically successful and who would have liked to study mathematics had his economic situation been different. As it was Hermann started out as a merchant, then went on to build an electrical company who was responsible for bringing electricity to Munich. It is in that environment that Einstein grew up and his codebase was developed. His biology may have given him the mental attributes to accel at mathematics, but it was his family environment that taught him ‘mathematik ist gut’ which lead to his extraordinary career.
Einstein’s computer brain may have had a slightly faster processor than you or I. And maybe his processor had some slight tweaks, that due to a freak of nature, gave him the skills to think about time and space much differently than had gone before. But to say his processor was totally different is untrue, because others can and do think about things even Einstein didn’t consider. They are standing on the shoulders of Einstein, which is also a principle of computing code, that each new piece is an improvement on the previous code.
So whilst there may be some variation in the computer build across humanity, we are largely the same and with time we can pretty much do anything we wish to do. For some it may take significant discomfort, physically, if learning a new sport or activity. Or mental discomfort, if learning a new language or expanding they way we see the world. And this is actually the crunch point for most of us. We give up and end our quest for knowledge or skill, at the first, second or third attempt. We stop trying to undo some of the code that is incompatible with our new desired way of being. We look at the 10,000 hours and think we’ll never achieve it. And even if we make it to 5,000 hours, we’re still only halfway there and we can often get despondent and stop there. It is this, that is the major flaw in our engineering, not that we cannot “be what we want to be”, but that we cannot motivate ourselves to “be what we want to be”. The code for everything we want is out there, sat waiting to be loaded onto our hard drive, but do we have the grit for the effort required to install it?
As we finish off, I am hoping you can now see not only that we are a product of our environment, but that we can also choose what kind of product we are. Yes there is tons of stuff, baggage even, that we have already installed that makes us who we are. What we think about daily. And even ‘how’ we think about things (positively or negatively). We can chose to keep the old data, some things are good, like manners and ethics. Or we can chose to delete or relearn some things, like prejudice or cynicism which we have built up. You can even reprogramme how you think about yourself…are you a winner or a loser. Are you a success or a failure. Are you happy or unhappy. Some things may need changing to support your new code, you might have to swap out some parts, like upgrading your body (at the gym) if you want to be a winner at the track. Or if you want to uninstall ‘boredom’ you might have to install ‘stimulating activities’ and or possibly think about changing your career or even geographic location.
The point is, no matter what you are built like, what you have already installed, there will always be a new piece of software ready to install.