People often ask me – what is my work about? I tell them – I study humans – I study how they think, how they feel, how they behave and why. This answer probably would induce another question in your mind, which is – “how does this apply to my personal life?” So, the real question here is – how does the understanding of the mind, which essentially is the understanding of brain functions in a large scale, can effect and change human life? How can the understanding of the mind be applied by the lay-person – the non-scientist, in his or her life, to live better, with friends, family and co-workers?
These are the questions, which I attempted to address in one of my works, entitled “What is Mind?” I concocted various thought experiments to elucidate answers to such questions among other philosophical ones? So, in this piece, we are going to take a look, at two excerpts from the book, which are most appropriate in this context. First let’s bring up an excerpt to shed some light on how our behavioral capacities and traits can alter radically based on internal and external conditions.
Excerpt 1 from What is Mind?:
Imagine yourself having a fight with your romantic partner. The tension of the situation makes your limbic system run at full throttle and you become flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin. The high levels of these chemicals suddenly make you so damn angry, that you burst out in front of your partner saying, “I wish you die, so that I can have some peace in my life”. Given the stress of the situation through highly active limbic system, your PFC loses its freedom to take the right decision and you burst out with foul language in front of your partner, that may ruin your relationship. In simple terms due to your mental instability, you lost your free will to make the right decision.
But when the conversation is over, and you relax for a while, your stress hormone levels come down to normal, and you regain your usual cheerful state of mind. Immediately, your PFC starts analyzing the explosive conversation you had with your partner. Healthy activity of the entire frontal lobes, especially the PFC suddenly overwhelms you with a feeling of guilt. Your brain makes you realize, that you have done something devilish. As a result, now you find yourself making the willful decision of apologizing to your partner and making up to him or her, no matter how much effort it takes, because your PFC comes up the solution that it is the healthiest thing to do for your personal life.
From this you can see, that what you call free will is something that is not consistent. It changes based on your mental health. Mental instability or illness, truly cripples your free will. And the healthier your frontal lobes are, the better you can take good decisions. And the most effective way to keep your frontal lobes healthy is to practice some kind of meditation.
So, you see, what you feel when you are angry or sad, or desperate, may not actually be the baseline emotional state of your individual mind. Taking that into consideration, you can take necessary precautions to prevent your angry outburst from ruining a certain relationship with another person. Now let’s look at one of the most significant thought experiments from What is Mind?, which actually depicts the real life benefit of the understanding of brain functioning. I named this thought experiment The PMDD Conundrum.
Excerpt 2, A Thought Experiment from What is Mind?
The PMDD Conundrum (Thought Experiment, What is Mind?, 2016)
Mental health influences your decision-making ability regardless of your experiences. However, experience is what makes you better at making the right decision in a given situation. Here the term right only refers to your subjective perspective of the choice. To explain how experience alters one’s free will,let’s carry out a little thought experiment in the context of two different scenarios.
Imagine yourself to be layman with no notable awareness of biology. You start dating a woman planning a long-term relationship. Every month right before her period starts, she gets extremely cranky like all menstruating women. However, she tells you that she has a rare medical condition called Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder or PMDD, which is the extreme form of PMS. You have already heard all about women getting agitated during their PMS, so you think that it is just the same. However, in time things get real stressful. Every month during those days, she would turn into a completely different person. And one time, she gets so agitated that she bursts out – you are the worst decision of my life. Naturally, it feels beyond acceptable to you. You are a human after all.
You cannot ignore such behavior any more. You start perceiving every single insulting word from her mouth to be true. It seems that it is what she really feels. You start getting upset beyond tolerance. And after several of such intense insults from her during those days, you realize that you don’t deserve such nonsense. You have no practical idea of what PMDD really is, so you perceive the insulting and violent behavior of your woman to be extremely inappropriate. So, one day you simply go ahead and tell her – you are nothing but a psychopathic maniac who just likes to hurt people. I think it’s time we ended things. Here, due to the lack of deeper understanding of what PMDD really is, your lay brain makes a decision based on your limited perception and needs, that you need to end the relationship.
Now let’s run the same experiment in a different context. Imagine yourself to be a person with a hobby of reading a lot of Science books, especially those connected to the mind. You like to learn new things. Now, you get into the same situation and the same circumstances as mentioned earlier. But, here when your girlfriend tells you about her condition after the first month of outburst in your relationship, you get really curious. Previously due to your curiosity you have already learnt about the basic biology behind PMS and how it affects the female psychology. So, hearing about PMDD, you don’t only feel responsible but also very intrigued to learn about it. You feel the urge to know how can such a cheerful person turn into a completely different human being, almost like a beast?
And as you start reading, everything begins to make sense. The first thing you realize is that, PMDD is nothing like the common PMS that almost every girl faces. It is the extremely violent form of PMS, which is very rare. Due to the intense hormonal storms of PMDD inside a woman’s head, her cognitive reality changes drastically during the pre-menstrual days. You start to realize what your woman has to go through every month, due to her condition. A man can never even imagine in his wildest dreams how such storm feels like.
PMDD leads to the worst of hormonal mood swings. Every month during these days she turns into a completely different person filled with hopelessness and gloom. As soon as the tides change she comes back to her real cheerful self. It is this condition which makes her say the things she would never say in a lucid mental state.
You begin to understand that for most women with PMS the hormonal changes are manageable, and they are able to somehow keep their agitation to themselves. But for your special lady, the story is different and quite unmanageable. Most weeks of the month she is brainy, creative, enthusiastic, cheerful and optimistic, but a mere shift in the hormonal ﬂood on certain days makes her absolutely hopeless about the future, about herself, about your relationship and basically about everything that she can think of. On those days her inner instability forces her to hate herself as well as get irritated at every single action you take. And the most fascinating thing about her mental state during that time is that the hopelessness caused by hormonal imbalances feels so damn real to her that she literally perceives it as the everlasting reality of her life. The utter hormonal turbulence completely transforms her cognitive reality from a cheerful one to a gloomy one. It constructs an altered state of consciousness, in which she becomes a different personality filled with nothing but hatred and rage.
She becomes absolutely blind to all the cheerful moments of her life. And she gets so restless that she explodes with insulting words towards you. Over time, you learn that the best to do in this situation is to do nothing and just be there with her. And every time she gets cranky, you simply learn to remain patient and unaffected by her words. Every month, once the hormonal storm wears off, she comes back to her original sunny state. In time, you grow more attachment for her, and she even becomes fonder of you, because you are always there for her, even when she is mad as hell. Thus, you don’t ever feel to leave her, rather together you stay forever and beyond.
In both contexts, you had two available options to choose from – leave or stay. Yet, you made totally opposite decisions in exactly the same circumstances. The only thing that was different is your understanding and experience.
In the first context, you were a layman with a general view of the world. You perceived everything in a generalized manner, with no further need of your own to explore and have deeper understanding of a phenomenon. Hence, when it came to decide whether to leave or to stay in the relationship, your brain made the decision based on your generalized understanding of everything, and you willfully preferred to leave your woman in the pursuit of a better prize, with less crankiness.
In the second context, you had a better grip over natural phenomena. Moreover, you had the curiosity to understand things, in a better way than the general public. And your understanding allowed you to try seeing the world from your woman’s perspective. And the more you tried, the better you became at being next to her when she needed you the most and hated you at the same time. You got experienced at it.
Naturally, the thought of leaving her, never occurred in your mind. And even if it did, you brushed off as the spur of the moment. Because your PFC already had sufficient data on the situation to analyze and come up with a positive outcome. Your experience here served as the very foundation, of your willful support towards your woman.
Each emotional impulse, each thought, each behavioral expression, has a neurological basis. Understanding these bases can redefine how we look at a person, how we look at a certain behavior of that person, how we look at a certain emotional impulse or behavioral expression of ourselves, and then to choose whether or not to accept it as our usual characteristic. And this very looking can change how we see our lives, how we live our lives, and how we see the world which we live in. In this looking lies the true key to contentment. In this looking, lie precious jewels of graceful living.
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