The Great Divide

We humans are usually ready and willing to admit our physical limitations. Our eyes change shape over time and we use glasses to correct our vision. Our voices only carry so far and we use phones and other devices to communicate over long distances. Our bipedal nature creates a limit to how quick we can travel, so we use animals and machines to carry us faster and farther.

Yet we are not as savvy when it comes to our mental limitations. When our willpower is drained and we succumb to the lure of a donut, we berate ourselves for being weak and undisciplined. When we fall prey to a logical fallacy, we chastise our stupidity and ignorance. When we react with uncontrolled emotion, we hate ourselves for being silly enough to have emotions.

But why? Why are we so hard on ourselves when our limitations are mental? If you were to kick yourself every time your eyes didn’t see 20/20, you’d be exhausted within an hour of waking (and you’d have a sore foot). You’re not going about every day upset with yourself because you’re unable to run a two-second mile. And you’re not disappointed that you can’t carry on a conversation with your friend across the country without the aid of technology.

You have physical limitations. We all do. Our bodies are only capable of so much and there are certain things that are impossible no matter how much you wish they weren’t. You can’t will yourself to see better any more than you can regrow a limb. It just doesn’t work like that.

So why are we better able to accept our physical limitations and yet so bad at accepting our mental limitations? One reason might be because our physical limitations are very apparent. Lose a limb and you just can’t do the same things as before (not yet at least!). You can yell as as loud as you want but after about a mile I’m not going to be able to hear you. Whether that’s because your voice is too weak or my ears are not sensitive enough is up for debate.

Another reason might be because we recognize when something is out of our control physically and we need assistance. Coming back to the eyes, we recognize the improbability of improving our eyesight just by trying to see better. So we go to the ophthalmologist and get lenses that adjust the light so it matches how our eyes work.

Where’s the same healthy level of respect and understanding when it comes to our own brain? When it comes to our behavior we have a pathological belief that we can be perfect and that anything less is bad and shameful. The picture we have ourselves in our minds is confronted at every moment with the reality of who we actually are. And we get pissed when the two don’t match up. There’s this divide between the two persons where everything else, all the stuff that makes us human, firmly sits.

Science is getting a glimpse at what all that messy stuff is between who we are and who we want to be. We have a much greater understanding of all the logical fallacies and irrationalities that make us human. And we’re making progress on ways to overcome those shortfalls, but it’s not a solved problem yet.

While the academics crank away at solving the brain, there are hundreds if not thousands of tools and devices that try to help with this problem. Most of them are crap and are sold by unscrupulous people. These folks prey on you and your poor human logic. However, there are some that actually do help you bring your two selves closer. (At the end of the post I’ll list a few of my recommendations.) It can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, but the gems are there. Not everyone is trying to rip you off. And even the ones who do rip you off probably don’t think they are. That’s one of the many funny things about the brain: it can trick itself.

So unless we suddenly fast-forward our own evolution to the point where we’re completely rational actors, we’re stuck with the hardware and software we’ve got. Sure, we can utilize some of the tools around us to improve ourselves, but don’t dive into it thinking you’ll be able to order yourself to perfect discipline anymore than you can command your voice to carry to Mars. I’m asking you to be as rationale as you can possibly be given what you have. At some point in the future will we have a helmet that “solves” our mental weaknesses much like glasses solve our vision? I don’t know. And even if we did have such a thing, would you use it?


Links:

As I said, I wanted to put some resources down here that I find useful in becoming as rational as I can be.

  1. Ramit Sethi’s blog I Will Teach You To Be Rich. His blog can be challenging in a good way. Get over your initial reactions to the name of his blog and his writing style and you’ll find a ton of gems.
  2. Drive by Daniel Pink — deep insights into what motivates us as humans. I plan on reading his other books as well.
  3. You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney — Both the blog and his books are great.
  4. The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan — The ultimate book on how to be rational and think better from one of the greatest science communicators of the 20th century.
  5. Self-experimentation. Seriously. Create mini-experiments and see what works for you. You’re unique in your own way and maybe the solution to your divide is nonexistent until you make it. Read, learn, experiment, and grow.
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