...A riff on generalizing, brains and melting butter...
So this is a big topic for me. I’m probably going to write five posts on it…that’s how many different reasons I’ve come up with so far for why in God’s name we don’t ask for help when we need it. To ask for help is to make yourself vulnerable in a moment. To admit a lack of something, a chink in the armor of your otherwise amazing-ness, is like, well, it can be embarrassing. And scary. In this first post, I need to set this all up. Let’s talk a bit about predictive science, the brain, generalization and melting butter.
Learning from experience
We often hear the phrase “experience has taught me…” meaning that once I’ve had an experience I tend to believe that similar circumstances will lead to similar outcomes in the future. Say I melt a half cup of butter in the microwave for 15 seconds and it’s only a slightly slumped version of what I started with. I add 15 more seconds at a time until the butter is a perfect golden pool in the bowl, and hasn’t burned.
My experience then has taught me that it takes about a minute to a minute and 15 seconds to get it where I want it. I’m unlikely (unless I’m this definition of crazy) to start at 15 seconds the next time I want to melt butter, right? I’m much more likely to start with the results of my previous experience. Learning from experience is one of the ways we become more skilled at life.
This approach mostly works as long as none of the variables other than the amount of cooking time change: amount of butter, altitude, temperature of butter, temperature of oven and perhaps composition of butter.
I might think that nature and life are so predictable of natural laws that there is no way that butter could melt faster or slower under the same conditions. But in truth it would be difficult, if not impossible, to actually replicate the experiment exactly. Why? Because I’m so inexact. And I tend to generalize more than, say, Einstein might. He says definitively that E = mc2, and I say, “Yah, I’m about a 4 today on the energy scale.” That’s precise enough for me because it’s all relative, right?
So I won’t actually have measured the temperature of the melted butter or determined at what exact moment it was just melted. If I said one minute; it could’ve actually been fully melted five seconds before that and I just hadn’t checked. My experiment wasn’t precise enough. And for most of life, we don’t have to be scientifically precise to infinity…and so we aren’t.
We generalize. Whether by habit, necessity or preference, we do it. Constantly. So it’s no wonder that one experience (or several repeated ones) causes us to form generalized predictors of the future. There is a whole area of science devoted to predictive theory. (It’s how Neptune was discovered for Pete’s sake. ) Scientific experimentation is based on the concept of predicting what will happen based on past experiments, seeing if it happens, and then seeing if the same results can be replicated.
And we’re experimenting all the time. Even when we’re tiny little first-born humans, we’re experimenting. At first, mostly by sensory observation. We hear loud voices and soft voices, and eventually we learn to attribute anger, frustration or hatred with one and gentleness, compassion and love with the other. We draw crude surface connections based on pure observation with no other data. However, our tiny little human brains are brand new; it will take years before certain parts develop. The neo-cortex (responsible for reason and judgement) is the last to develop. (This happens later in young men than women, by the way. Which explains a lot about my college experiences with men. But I digress.)
If you’re familiar with the ayahuasca movement and have seen some of the research on how it works, you’ll know already that it particularly helps people with addictions. It does that in part by forcing our brains to activate in areas that are holding memories we’d rather not consciously think about, but which can be the source of dangerous and ultimately fruitless self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. With those memories out in the open it’s possible to literally see them in a new light, supported by psychological support and treatment. Retraining the brain to see those experiences with more maturity, and to exorcise the pent-up pain and anguish, can often be a truer path to shedding an addiction than by trying to treat the addiction itself.
Dr. Jordie Riba, a pharmacologist who does neurological research, describes what happens in the brain this way: “When any stimulus enters the brain, the brain tries to understand it based on previous experience. In early life, powerful or traumatic events create an imprint on the brain, a pattern. This pattern is like a shortcut, activated every time we face a similar situation. If we were once attacked by a dog, our brain might harbor a set of pathways that associate that dog with all dogs, making us fear them in general. We might even react adversely to a distant bark. Repeated events cause these neurological patterns to reinforce their connections, binding with proteins, and building them up like scar tissue.”
Thus, “experience has taught me…” is not only a figurative statement, but a literal one. So the people who say “Just get over it,” don’t get that it may not be as easy as all that. Your brain may not let you, no matter how much you want to. Hence the emerging and fascinating experimentation with ways to change neural pathways (like neurofeedback) to help people heal from numerous ailments, addictions and behavioral conditions.
Okay. That’s the setup. So, in the next installment (Part I) I’ll start looking my explorations of Why Don’t We Ask for Help?, focusing on Trust & Distrust.
‘Til then…ask & you shall receive,