Well-Being//

Could Our Brain Actually Be Working Against Our Own Happiness?

A psychologist weighs in.

Courtesy of  Photo by Cathy Scola / Getty Images 

The Pulitzer Prize–winning naturalist Edward O. Wilson wrote, “Human nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species . . . These rules are the genetic biases in the way our senses perceive the world, the symbolic coding by which we represent the world, the options we automatically open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make.” What Wilson points to is how we inherit our brain’s biological raw material, which shapes how we take in and respond to the world. We do not, however, inherit predestined experiences. We get to apply the greatest tool evolution has afforded—awareness—to the task of how we relate to the world in the forms of our thoughts and sensory experiences.

One example of the biological blinders that evolved within our brains is the adaptations we’ve developed over the eons in how we perceive one another. One well-researched brain-based bias is what social psychologists have termed the “fundamental attribution error”: “the tendency to assume that an actor’s behavior and mental state correspond to a degree that is logically unwarranted by the situation.” It’s me assuming the guy who cut me off last week in Boston traffic is a “selfish jerk” to the exclusion of any sense of his personal context of lateness and/or family crisis. It’s people assuming the emotionally and behaviorally challenged kids I’ve worked with are “bad” or “manipulative” and failing to see the biocontextual forces in a given situation that may have sparked their swearing or oppositional behavior, rendering them empathy hard to the onlooker.

So why would evolution deliver such a biological straitjacket to our mental wardrobe? As argued by evolutionary biologists, “cognitive biases are often not flaws, but design features that improve responses under uncertainty.” Overevaluating threat and deceptive intent or underemphasizing the seeds of forgiveness in another could (for our cave-dwelling forbears) have prompted avoidance of those who might be aggressive and take off with our food or mates, and may have prompted us to forge stronger bonds with our kin (and thereby promote genetic advantage). “Social cognitive biases should be viewed in terms of their ultimate adaptive effects, and not whether they represent logical or ‘accurate’ ways of thinking.”

As an example of the modern implications of this, Federal Rule of Evidence 403(b) prohibits the prosecution from introducing evidence of a criminal defendant’s past “propensity” for criminal behavior.Judges and juries are not to be trusted (due to social cognitive biases) to not overly weight past behaviors in assessing a defendant’s guilt in commission of the crime being adjudicated. The law would have participants rely solely on a logical and unselfish weighing of facts, and yet we can’t readily sidestep the ancient emotional architecture of the brain’s hardware. It’s for this reason that research suggests that people who are experiencing a temporary surge of fear are much more likely to erroneously perceive anger in another’s face and miss cues of fear or other emotions, particularly if that other person is part of an “out group.”

So here’s a question I’ve struggled with in recent years: if, as Buddhist psychology argues, the pure light of unhindered awareness is our birthright, why were we born with such constrictive neural hardware? It’s like being told you are really the Deep Thought supercomputer, and after you’ve matured enough to open the box and peer inside, you find that you’ve really be given a mere Commodore 64. (Yes, I’m dating myself here.) So did the Buddha have the same mental RAM as we do? He decried any godlike status and referenced himself as mere mortal. Was his motherboard somehow better wired than ours?

The biological deck may be stacked against our ready access to the Buddha’s attainment of awareness, but it doesn’t mean we can’t play our hand, learn about the karma of hindrance patterns clouding the mind, and take strides toward greater clarity. Evolution gave us our brains, but we can stand astride its fissured surface and reach higher. It’s here that the array of lists of factors and conditions for the rise of awareness within Buddhist psychology reemerges. We must do the hard work of consistent, unrelenting practice—we must unpack the hindrances and climb higher in concentration (the various jhanic levels) and approach the example set by the Buddha.

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From The Five Hurdles to Happiness by Mitch Abblett © 2018 by Mitch Abblett. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com 

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