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The mind and you

Understanding psychological principles of personality helps you better coordinate with your mind and hence achieve better outcomes

The mind and you

The human brain is the most complex mechanism, almost as complex as the universe. Daniel Kahneman talks of System 1 and System 2. The former is the fast thinking, intuitive self, which at the beginning is made up of our limbic brain (simply and graphically called the lizard brain and the monkey brain) but later learns from education and experience to develop insight. And the latter is the conscious thinker, the human brain that does what most other animals are unable to do. This is the learning brain. It's what makes us different from other lesser species. Over time, this learning is transported to System 1, where it becomes instinctive.

System 1 is the older, more powerful brain, which gets the first right of way. When it is agitated, the junior System 2 shuts up in a phenomenon called the 'amygdala hijack'. The amygdala is the risk-reward centre of the brain, and when it decides that something is important, all other 'logical' processes of the brain will shut down. That is because the brain is designed for risks that are life-threatening, the only real risk in the jungle. The brain is not designed to handle 'limited risks', which don't kill you, like huge marked-to-market losses in the stock market. This is the source of much of our misbehaviour in the real economic world and our inability to handle uncertainty. The amygdala confuses uncertainty with risk, mistakes volatility (which is but another name for uncertainty) for real and present danger and shuts down our logical processing unit, the part which learns and understands.

We have other layers to our personality. In some ways, we are like all other people. We are all members of a single species, with identical brains thinking identical thoughts. The part of the brain that unites us is the spine. Here is housed the instinct of self-preservation, the id.

In some other ways, we are like some other people. This similarity comes from the 'herd' we are part of, the sub-species that we identify with. It could be family, religion, caste, village, nationality. It is made up of our tendency to behave in line with certain social mores, which are learnt but often sub-consciously. Neurologically speaking, this comes from the cerebellum medulla, which houses the herding instinct. From here comes our social instinct, which is very powerful, although not as powerful as the instinct of self-preservation. All our happiness is rooted in our social relationships, and not in the pursuit of money/wealth or material prosperity.

And in the ways in which we have learned consciously, we are like no other people. This is what makes us human, unique in our own individual ways, and of any interest to each other. Without it, we are just a herd of deer, bound together by an instinct of self-preservation. We can only be called a 'colony', or a civilization, when we are brought together by a common desire to 'organise', form patterns with our (human) behaviour and build on each other, so that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Psychologists are interested in the traits that bind people together - trait psychology. The five traits are called OCEAN: openness to experience, conscientiousness (as opposed to lackadaisical, careless attitude), extraversion (as opposed to introversion), agreeableness (as opposed to a disagreeable attitude) and neuroticism/changeability (as opposed to stability).

The predictors of life success are that you should be open (helps you to be audacious), conscientious (systematic, error-free, persevering, passionate, sticking to deadlines/commitments), extrovert (helps build relationships), agreeable and mostly stable (as opposed to neurotic). To build our life skills and manage ourselves, we should gravitate to the correct end of the spectrum on each of the above dimensions.

Different combinations of traits build different kinds of personality. And each personality type is different along other dimensions, showing clearly that mental and other bodily responses are influenced by the underlying personality trait. For instance, extroverts use social encounters by standing closely and maintaining eye contact. They use personal terms/nicknames. They use black-and-white concrete terms. On the other hand, introverts speak 'indirectly' and tend to beat about the bush.

On top of this is the idiosyncratic behaviour, which makes us lovable or unlovable. Sometimes, we project different personalities to get work done. For instance, if you are a professor but an introvert, you will put on extraversion to communicate. This shows that many personality traits are changeable with effort. If we use the above rule of thumb to modulate our personality, we will be able to build a flexible tool that is able to open up different doors to success.

This brings us to personal transformation. While trait psychology helps us identify the personality that will help us achieve our objectives, the topic of personal transformation will help us to get there. This is a big subject, full of many mental pathways that help us to modulate our mind to achieve the changes required. Only a little is discussed here.

You need four things to collaborate with your mind.

1. When your mind thinks you want to do something, it sets up the environment to help you do it. If you haven't got what you want but you have behaviours that you don't want, you're not collaborating properly. Negative talk reinforces itself and negative interpretations of circumstances reinforce themselves as the mind seeks to justify things to you. If a student tells himself that his exams are killing him, his mind will find evidence to prove to him that they indeed are. And it will procrastinate, delay and dislike things till his unfortunate outcome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The mind does what it thinks you want. You have to say that you love doing something, even when it isn't true. It is a difficult thing to do, but lying to yourself is often a good idea, part of positive psychology, and very effective at building equanimity.

2. You are hard-wired to seek pleasure and run away from pain. This is well-known, and the ability to seek pain (in tolerable doses) is a big life skill. Delaying self-gratification, for example, is partly a natural, inborn skill but is definitely something that can be practised and acquired. This skill has been called as the biggest predictor (and earliest indicator, evident even in toddlers) of long-term life success.

3. The way you feel about everything is down to just two things: the pictures you make in your head and the words you say to yourself. Both of these are within your conscious mental control. Certainly, the latter is well within your ability to modify.

4. The mind loves what is familiar; it is programmed to go down the same road again and again. You've got to make what is familiar unfamiliar and what is unfamiliar familiar. This is the building and un-building of comfort zones, a key life skill.

If all this sounds like 'common sense', remember, it is not. The human mind cannot process a concept unless it is given a name. Our instinctive thinking takes on a structure when we articulate these concepts, define and outline them. In the case of the mind, knowing something is the first step to changing it.

As economics moves towards articulating this 'common sense', it will hopefully become precisely that - common.

The author teaches, trades and writes at spandiya.blogspot.com