The Prime Directive - The Brain As An Information Reduction Machine
Your brain has a limited capacity to process and store information, and to pay attention. Its prime directive, then, is to filter out information it doesn't "think" it needs.If you want to increase your understanding of why and how people behave, without spending twenty years in University, you MUST understand what is the most profound, yet simple principle about the brain. Surprisingly, it's quite simple, at least on the surface, although quite complex when you get to the details of what goes on in the brain.
Brain Has A Limited Capacity To Process Information.
Brains don't have infinite capacity. They have finite limits on a) how much input they can process effectively in any given time span, b) how much "attention" can be paid to multiple things at the same time, and c) how much can be input and stored in any given time.
None of these are that surprising, although the myth of multitasking is still going strong, even while there is research that shows that humans don't do it and can't do it. It just feels like it.
Given that our brains make the difference between surviving and dying out as individuals and as a species(we are quite puny in almost every other way compared to animals, and even insects in terms of strength, versatility, adaptiveness, etc), how did our brains evolve?
Filtering Out of Input
It's really fairly simple. Our brains work to reduce load. Information is load since it all needs to be "processed", but since the "machine" can only do so much, it filters out "stuff" in a number of ways.
The process of "habituation" (getting used to things that are often around us) is an example of a way the brain reduces load.
Ever notice that if, let's say, you walk into a hotel room and the air conditioner is making a constant noise, eventually, you won't "hear it" any more? That's the brain getting used to the constant sound, and the process is wired in, unless you mess with it by emotional thinking. The evolutionary reason is clear. Given an animal can only pay attention to one thing, and given the millions and trillions of "things" in an even simple environment that "could be" processed, the animal (or human) needs to learn to allocate "attention" to some things (predators, food sources) and not to spend attention on other things (the lovely smell of the leaves, the color of the sky).
If the filtering doesn't happen, the chances are another creature will end up with a tasty lunch, because the survival related stimuli won't get tracked early enough to take action. And, as they say, there goes the species.
Humans operate similarly, although our abilities to "think" (intentionally manipulate incoming data) is far more advanced (or different).
What Are The Implications?
The Rational Brain?
Contrary to what we might like to believe, we simply are not logical or "rational". We never make decisions based on knowing EVERYTHING we need to know to make decisions, because it's not possible to know or process EVERYTHING that we might take into account. We use shortcuts, so we don't get lost in thought. Heuristics, they are called.
We Operate On Faith, NOT Data
Related is that all of us have FAITH in some ways of looking at things. Faith is interesting because it doesn't require any kind of data to induce faith, or maintain it. Faith is a fundamental basis for thought and by which the the "faithful" reduce information load. Why?
Because once you have "faith" (or believe something), you now longer have to check and recheck data coming in from the environment. In effect, you STOP learning about much of the "thing" that you believe.
Faith isn't just for religion. Scientists also operate using faith. They believe certain methods are good, and some are not, as an example. Faith always exists and makes it possible for us to survive.
If you had to constantly answer the question: "Will the building I'm in stand up for the next hour or fall down", you could do nothing else, because answering that question is impossible, and endless. You'd always be thinking about it, and as a side note, because you can't solve the question, you'd experience anxiety.
You "believe" it will stand, or have faith in it, and the designers, inspectors, architects, etc. So your brain (at least if it's working properly "moves on". Or, if you are in the small minority who actually spend time thinking about thinking, you might make a conscious decision to "let it go".
But sometimes you can't. If you are in a locked room with a wild tiger staring at you, your attention will automatically focus on the tiger, and that will be that. Until it eats you, or you escape. That's a mechanism the brain also has for allocating resources on what's important.
Getting Back To YOUR Brain, and What You Believe
Why is it I say so much of what you believe about people is wrong? Because in many ways, most of what you believe you know is wrong. Me too.
The brain simplifies. It loses things, or it doesn't pay attention to things. It drops out details. Since you can only process so much, everything you know is over-simplified. Wrong. But right, too. If you are still alive, then you're right enough, enough of the time, to ensure you are...well, still alive.
But it also means that when it comes to what you think you know, you're also going to be wrong, too, and that's one reason why we get lots of wacky ideas (fads). Of course the other is we aren't so rational. We do our best.
There are tons of implications for the basic principle here. It explains huge amounts of our behavior, why we get things wrong, why we believe what we believe, etc. And that's the point of the material in this section.