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Sep 13, 2008

A Study of Human Nature

The most challenging and the most interesting part of my job is dealing with people, with their quirks and peculiarities. Sometimes I think this entire experience is one big experimental study of human nature. And I even did not have to go through the human subject review board!

Here is one finding: there is a big mismatch between the intellect and the emotion. Otherwise perfectly rational, very smart and competent people will suddenly exhibit irrational likes or dislikes, take childish actions, and otherwise behave as if their rational brain is turned off for a moment. A wonderful and much-loved teacher will suddenly through a fit in classroom, yell at students, and slam the door, leaving. Another great person will have an episode of flash rage, and do something, then regret it and deny ever having done it. Someone with a great potential will sometimes say things about which she has absolutely no idea, just to experience the sensation of being always right and always competent. A person will suspect being set up for failure. Another person will believe in a great conspiracy against him. An experienced faculty member will read a student's confidential e-mail to the whole class, and humiliate the author publicly. She will consider every student question as a way of undermining her authority. Two people who have not known each other will suddenly take dislike of each other without any reasons. A person will demand special treatment with an infantile egocentrism and blindness to the needs of the whole group. Of course, my very position makes me aware of more of these things than anyone else, just because information of such nature tends to flow towards me. Authority attracts anger like lantern attracts moths; with similar consequences. It is endlessly fascinating; and never gets old. It also helps to reflect on my own actions, and sometimes even see my own "brain-off" episodes coming (although not usually).

The atavistic, caveman parts of our brains are very much alive and strong. They interact uneasily with the more modern, sophisticated parts of the brain. The caveman then forces the rational brain to come up with very complicated and believable rationalizations. After all, when your rational brain comes on line again, it needs to integrate what you just did into the life story, and into the sense of a coherent self. I am not sure the self really exists; it does looks like a story that really makes little sense. You probably have seen some movies where the playwright had a hard time coming up with a plausible ending, and just shoehorns everything into an arbitrary, unbelievable ending. That's what we do about ourselves: we take all these random behaviors, and give them the reasons later:"Here is why I did it; I had every right to do it." It is too bad the culture does not allow for just simply irrational behaviors. I think the problem is not with the caveman brains we have, but with the constant pressure to hide their existence. I wish people would just say, "Sorry, it was a brain-off episode."

Unfortunately, different people will have different relationships with their caveman brains. Some acknowledge it, and learn to live with it. Others don't acknowledge, but still have ways of controlling it most of the time. And then some people just have no idea about how irrational their behavior really is, how much it hurts them and others. They are so busy rationalizing their own actions that no time is left for actually doing something good. The need to rationalize all of our actions actually enslaves us to the caveman brains, makes the truly irrational actions indistinguishable from regular, rational actions.


  1. Anonymous8:13 PM

    Sometimes I read these blogs and question whether they're meant to instill a sense of paranoia, or self reflection. I'll opt for the latter. Regardless, please excuse my "brain off" moments of the past, and of course the ones I have yet to inflict upon academia, as I'm certain (though regretful) that my naivete combined with reading far too much will result in making a complete ____ of myself. Par for the course?

  2. Dear anonymous:
    Instilling paranoia is not in my interest, so you have opted correctly. In the spirit of reciprocity, please excuse my "brain off" moments, past and future.

  3. Anonymous10:05 AM

    Nice Post

    Some people say the humans are more evolved than other species. It's flattering to humans, but wrong. All creatures on the earth today are equally evolved. They just evolved differently.

    I think it's healthier to think of the human brain this way. All parts are equally evolved. They just have different functions. Yes, some are newer parts than others, but all are equally evolved, now.

    It's not that the brain switches off, its just that a non-conscious / nonverbal part of the brain switches on. That part of the brain is just a beautiful and useful as any other.

    Our "rational" brains can't detect emotions, threats, rewards, curiosity, physical sensations and much more. By itself, it's rather dumb.

    Sometime you just need to jump out of danger and thinking about it is a bad idea.

    So to take your point further, we need to move beyond just acknowledging all the parts of our brains exist, and move toward appreciating the beauty in all its parts. All its functions are valuable. A totally rational, linear processing brain isn't human, it's a lousy computer with limited storage (about 7 registers).

    There are no "caveman" parts and modern parts. All parts are equally evolved. All parts serve, even if we don't fully understand their intent.