Happiness – A Theory: How our Brains Lie to Us

The dialectic between descent with modification and the expanded cortex of the mammalian brain appears to have led to a kind of “house of mirrors” in humans.  The smarter we get, it seems, the more we believe in our perceptions, while our brains work overtime to concoct a version of reality divorced from the evidence.

As part of the tangle of sophisticated circuitry enabled by our expanded cortex, we are able to associate any one thing with virtually any other thing, creating for ourselves an illusion of passive observation of what is actually happening in our present-time experience.  We think of our brains as truth-seeking devices, but they deceive us without respite, and in staggeringly sophisticated ways.

Vision, for instance, is a projection of our minds, rather than the passive process that our brains might have us believe.  Memory is fraught with error, but we adopt a false recollection with the fervor of a loving mother toward her child.  We strive to acquire multiple choices, but we thrive where there are very few choices to be made, and suffer where there is a profusion.  We are willing to diminish our own resources in order to punish someone we perceive as acting unfairly.  We divide our fellows into “us” and “them” with regularity, despite the evidence that, in every meaningful way, we are just the same.  We fret over a perceived threat that is little more than a dissenting opinion – i.e., something that would make us wiser, if we gave it shrift.  We ruminate over real and imagined negatives, traumatizing ourselves more than would ever occur if we simply dealt with adversity as it arose.  We set for ourselves the impossible goal of changing another person, then fall into a funk as the futility of the venture becomes apparent.  We consider ourselves to be right in demanding that the world be different than it is.  We perceive ourselves as victims, where the overwhelming evidence is that we are being treated to a truly unique experience in the universe.  We expend energy in loathing others, when the evidence is that doing so is like taking poison.  We think we are thinking when we have the perception that we are thinking, where the evidence is that our brains are whirring away 24/7, primarily in ways to which we have no access.

Recognizing that our brains lie – that we must cultivate a healthy skepticism of our own mental processes – is an important step in the pursuit of happiness.

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