Saturday, December 19, 2020

#354 / Your Brain Is Not For Thinking


Lisa Feldman Barrett is a distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University. In a November 24, 2020, column in The New York Times, Barrett makes what struck me as a rather extraordinary claim - the claim I have featured in my title today: "Your brain isn't made for thinking." 

What, we might well ask, is our brain made for then, if not for thinking? Barrett says that the brain has mainly evolved to supervise the operations of our physical body, and to make sure that adequate resources will be available whenever the body and its organs make demands. The brain oversees what Barrett calls our body's "budget," "automatically predicting and preparing to meet the body's [physical] needs before they arise." 

One of the points that Barrett makes is that "in body-budgeting terms, [the] distinction between mental and physical is not meaningful. ... There is no such thing as a purely mental cause, because every mental experience has roots in the physical budgeting of your body."

Certain practices I associate with Buddism - breath meditation for instance - are illustrations of how this works in practice. We can achieve "insight" or "knowledge" not by "thinking" but by a proper relationship with our body and its processes. 

Barrett ends her column with the following observations: 

We’re all living in challenging times, and we’re all at high risk for disrupted body budgets. If you feel weary from the pandemic and you’re battling a lack of motivation, consider your situation from a body-budgeting perspective. Your burden may feel lighter if you understand your discomfort as something physical. When an unpleasant thought pops into your head, like “I can’t take this craziness anymore,” ask yourself body-budgeting questions. “Did I get enough sleep last night? Am I dehydrated? Should I take a walk? Call a friend? Because I could use a deposit or two in my body budget.”

This is not a semantic game. It’s about making new meaning from your physical sensations to guide your actions.

I’m not saying you can snap your fingers and dissolve deep misery, or sweep away depression with a change of perspective. I’m suggesting that it’s possible to acknowledge what your brain is actually doing and take some comfort from it. Your brain is not for thinking. Everything that it conjures, from thoughts to emotions to dreams, is in the service of body budgeting. This perspective, adopted judiciously, can be a source of resilience in challenging times.

What Barrett is saying here seems like good advice to me. It's practical advice, too. However, my mind went on from Barrett's practical observations to my own speculations. With apologies to Barrett, I would have to call my speculations "thinking." What I started thinking about was what seems to have happened to our brains in some evolutionary way. 

Presuming that Barrett is right, and that our brains were not "made for thinking," we do use those brains to "think." If so, doesn't that mean that we have somehow pushed our brains into an activity that Nature did not, and perhaps does not, really intend? In fact, our "thinking" is associated (in our minds) with an implicit assertion that we are more than our "bodies," and that "we" have some sort of real existence that is more than, and that is above and beyond, our bodily and physical existence.

Religious types will remember the Garden of Eden. Our natural physical bodies suddenly seemed shameful, according to the Bible, and we got kicked out of our right relationship with the Natural World. 

And here we are!

The human desire to master the Natural World, rather than to live within its boundaries, is an assertion that we, as human beings, should be establishing the reality we inhabit. And, of course, we largely do that. We have even pushed our poor brains into "thinking," something for which, apparently, they were not designed, and we have used our "thinking" to direct us in establishing our mastery over the Natural World, a mastery which our "thinking" allows us to claim and to which we aspire. 

Take a deep breath (and pay attention). That's one way to try to establish peace and harmony between ourselves and the World of Nature. I wish I thought that were going to be enough.

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