This short NPR audio interview, Loss aversion, shows how we can’t help but shoot ourselves in the foot. When I look around, I see loss aversion influencing just about everything we do, albeit often in very subtle ways. The innate emotional aversion to loss, when reinforced by reason (thought) traps us even more. I’m going to dig into this deeper and tie up any loose ends that I see. My premise being, the more aware we are, the less likely we are to misdirect our emotional fire. Presumably, Right Understanding gives us some limited powers of management… right?
I Feel Therefore I Think
I’ve picked at Descartes’, “I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum) philosophical proposition at various times, e.g., A How-To for Extinguishing Self. That has been mostly an exercise in beating around the Buddhist bush I suppose. This NPR interview inspired me to beat around the scientific bush a little. Fortunately, biological science has been relentlessly picking away at what makes life tick. Although, I don’t think one needs to fall back on biology very much. It works well to just leave the stories behind and observe what is naturally so.
First, we’ll need to stipulate the obvious: we are animals. Sure, we’re different, but then so is every species in its own way. The commonality we all share is feeling. This ability defines sentient life all the way from the sense perception of an amoeba that guides its movements, to a fighter pilot’s sense perception that guides his. (1)
The essential point here is that feeling controls everything we do in life. The only part of that sentient realm of which we are self-consciously aware is the tiny tip of a sentient iceberg. Below awareness are the millions of biochemical interactions that make sentient life possible. Emotions churning below the surface waters of our cognitive awareness guide the paths our thought take. It really is straightforward and obvious, yet it is something difficult to see and accept, I suppose. Why?
‘We can’t see the forest for the trees’, meaning, being in the midst of our experience it is difficult to see anything outside that experience. The one and only gift of aging is an increasing ability to perceive outside the ‘illusion of self’ box. I suspect that experiencing the physical body’s decline, the death of loved ones, and a broader span of history in general leaves each of us more humble as the years fly by. It is from that humility that clarity comes, as I see it anyway… Loss through death, of the way uses.
I did broach this feeling cum thinking issue recently in Emotion Speaks… Literally. There you will find a few interesting links to scientific research that supports this ‘bottom up’ view of thinking.
Feeling is Real
Feelings are real biochemical processes that all animals undergo. Actually, I’m referring to sentient life, so by that definition I must include ALL—yes all—living things. Sure, it can be extremely rudimentary as in a poppy flower that opens up as it ‘feels’ the sunshine strike its sunlight-sensitive cells. It can be extremely sophisticated as in a rich women weeping over the loss of a favorite piece of jewelry. Both experiences—the feelings—are real. However, the flower’s sense results in positive survival responses. The rich woman’s sense… not so much. (2)
Well, it is not that the rich woman’s feelings are invalid or skewed; it is that the thoughts these feelings evoke quickly lead to needless stress for the woman and those around her. Her mind’s thought connected the jewelry to her sense of self from the outset. The subsequent loss evoked negative emotion, which elicited further thought—it perpetuates itself; it is a thought-> emotion -> thought -> emotion vicious cycle. This loss of jewelry becomes a virtual death-of-self spiral. It is easy to see why it will be nearly impossible for her not to feel the thoughts as real as the emotions from which they arise. It is that linkage to which chapter 71 speaks. To ‘realize I don’t know’ means realizing that the thoughts that feel so real and true are not really—only the emotions are genuine. Why aren’t thoughts as real and true as they feel?
Thought naturally reasons in ways that ‘verify’ our feelings(3). In a sense, we make up whatever evidence we need to prove how we feel is justified and genuine. We could chalk this up to supporting or protecting the ego at all costs, although, I suppose some social fairness instinct helps bias thought as well. The stories cognition creates gets way out of proportion to reality, especially when it is very personal. We lack an impartial judge to intervene in our internal deliberations. There is nothing to prevent our narrative of ‘proof’ from feeding back and re-stimulating our emotions. The result: not knowing this knowing is dis-ease. On the other hand, we have no problem recognizing this ‘making of mountains out of mole hills’ process in other people, like the rich woman who lost her favorite bauble… “boo hoo”, we say, yet fail to recognize this neurological amplification when it occurs in us. This simply doubles down on any blind spot we may have.
Nature’s ‘Gifts’ Will Be Used
Evolution has endowed life with certain fundamental innate responses to a species’ environment. I notice two of the most powerful responses to stimuli are attraction and aversion. This plays out in everything from amoeba to humans. In us, and other ‘higher forms’ of life, these show themselves as need and fear. There are other primal endowments as well: the immune system’s response to bacterial invasion, the physical skeletal muscular system that moves the body to carry out the work of living, to name two.
All this evolved to enhance survival fitness in the wild, not in civilized circumstances where we seldom need to ‘work’ as hard at living as we originally did in the wild. Indeed, the primary thrust of civilization, from the stone axe and fire to chainsaws and central heating has been to maximize comfort and security and minimize the price (usually caloric) we have to pay for these. However, we still do pay a price! These natural endowments didn’t just vacate our genome as we came to demand less of them.
The result of raising children in a super hygienic environment illustrates the issue. Researchers find that when the immune system is deprived of a chance to fulfill its mission, it turns in on itself, which increases incidence of allergy, for example. On the physical side, you might wonder why jogging and other forms of strenuous activity grow in popularity. The reason, in part, may be that the body just knows it needs to do something more than circumstances currently demand of it. If it doesn’t, there are adverse physical and emotional consequences that come with an overfed sedentary life style.
I notice this same ‘nature’s ‘gifts’ will be used‘ dynamic when it comes to our core attraction and aversion emotions. In the wild, need (energy) would be directed toward acquiring the necessities of life—raw survival. The same holds true for fear (energy). It would be directed toward being on the lookout for predators or other threats to survival. The innate natural ‘gifts’ of need and fear don’t disappear once they are no longer solely aimed at core survival; they simply shift focus!
To Where Does the Focus of Energy Shift?
The energy shifts mostly inward, feeding back into our emotion and re-stimulating them! This keeps emotions alive long after the initial external stimuli passes. This enables us to dwell on issues and reignite the sparks that set off emotions in the first place. Now, this might not be so destructive if it played out in a balanced way. If both positive and negative emotions were reinforce equally… However, that is not the biology of it. Negative emotions carry more weight, and over power positive ones. In other words, as the NPR segment pointed out, We Care More About Losses Than Gains.
One can do nothing to block this directly. We’re dealing with instinct after all. Conflicting needs are part of life, every living thing experiences this dynamic—stress and tension. We want to ‘gain’, yet we fear ‘loss’, yet there is nothing ventured, nothing gained, yet venturing out makes loss increasingly possible. This sure keeps life’s pot stirred.
The only silver lining here lies in how attending the school of life gradually forces us to see how frequently life turns out differently than we thought. That sobers us to the humble, albeit often subconscious, truth: I don’t really know; I feel what I feel, and thoughts just bubble up from the depth.
(1) Oddly enough, there are many who hold that thought is a prerequisite for awareness and consciousness, each of which are merely aspects of sentience. I’m not sure why they hold such a narrow and obviously egocentric view. Oh wait, that’s why… The ego feels a need to protect is superior status. J
(2) I just looked up “sense” and found this as the first definition: any of the faculties by which a person or animal obtains information about the physical world, e.g. sight or taste. The synonyms are more weighted to human “sense”: intelligence, brains, intellect, logic, good judgment, wisdom, common sense, etc. That’s okay, as long as we recognize all life possesses some measure of this sense. Indeed, all poppies will use “good judgment” as they respond appropriately to the sun. Come to think of it, we are not nearly as consistent in using “good judgment”.
(3) A glaring example of how thoughts reason in ways that ‘verify’ our feelings is our belief in free will. We need to feel we are in control of our lives, that others are in control of their lives, and so rationalize the ‘proof’ necessary; our belief become the ‘proof’. Faith, as with most things, is a double edge blade. Fortunately, it is easy to determine the more reliable and beneficial edge. To paraphrase chapter 1: