Monday, September 27, 2010

Why We Should Never Take Ourselves (or anyone else) Too Seriously

Once upon a time, I had a pretty good brain.  It learned quickly, understood a lot, and could do pretty much whatever I wanted it to do with minimal effort.  Of course, I didn't appreciate that brain at the time.  Totally took it for granted, and assumed that it would always serve me in just the same way. 

Sure, once I had the twins, I noticed a bit of sluggishness in both of my upper hemispheres.  My friends and I refer often to Mommy Brain, and we mean it.  I wonder if that has ever been studied?  Do our brains really work less efficiently?  Or do we just have a lot more to keep up with?

Still, my brain worked fairly well overall . . . until I got sick.  I went from one month being able to do most anything I wanted (someday . . .) to the next month (and the following two years) being frustrated to no end with my clunky, unreliable blobby mess of tangled neurons.  I can function fine on some levels, but I still have a never-ending fog that I struggle against, as well as random hiccups (to put it delicately) that strike out of nowhere and create havoc when I least expect it.

The advantage of all this?  (Yes, there's an advantage.  You'll learn this about me - there's almost always an advantage.)  Well, I've gotten a lot more up close and personal with just how delicate a balancing act our brains are.  That experience has opened my eyes to the misconceptions I had about my grasp on reality.  When my brain was working comparatively smoothly, I thought that I had things under control, had a good idea of how the world worked, what was going on in my life, and so forth.  I think most of us like to think of ourselves as stable, rational, reasonable beings.  And to a large extent, we are.  But I've seen how the slightest bit of hormone or neurotransmitter glitch can throw things way off track, without us even being consciously aware of it.  Sleep, stress, diet, stress, activity, stress . . . can all throw our supposedly "rational" evaluations way out of kilter.  Not to mention all the ways in which our brains are hardwired to make mistakes right out of the gate.

Think about it - have you ever noticed how sometimes you can tolerate certain things (kids' noise, traffic, etc), and other days almost the same exact stimulus can seem like more than you can bear?

When things are going smoothly, I think our brains sweep all these little glitches under the rug, where they go pretty much unnoticed.  We chalk them up to flukes, but don't recognize them as symptoms of our real limitations.  Once the pile under my rug was as tall as a house, I had no choice but to recognize that everything isn't always what it seems.  That I do not, in fact, have everything figured out.  That I don't come close to understanding everything that is going on.  That I forget more than I remember.  And that I always have, but I just never noticed.

So now I make it a point never to take myself - or anyone else - too seriously.

Here's a link to a cool book that I found that points out just how fallible we can be:
Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure That We Are Way Above Average.

We can't all be above average.  I mean average is average.  Most of us are, in fact, average (or close to it), by definition.  Some of us are actually below average, whether we like to admit it or not.  (And not just politicians, either.)  So why do we all think we are above average?  That's a fascinating question that this book addresses, along with many other quirks of our oh-so-important, but oh-so-human brains.