Our brain took no chances with our lymbic system – the centre that controls our most basic responses such as fight, flight, or fright – and nestled it deep in our brains. Evolution also endowed us with the pre-frontal cortex that has the ability to override the lymbic system from time to time aided by willpower and habit.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt simplified this into the analogy of the elephant (or the very powerful lymbic system) and the rider (or the logical, decisive pre-frontal cortex that can guide the elephant, but not fight it).
Faced with a situation our body doesn’t recognize, we are wired to do what’s ‘intuitive’ e.g. if we are lying down and someone we don’t recognize walks into the room, we immediately attempt to straighten up – a gesture of self defence rooted in our ancient distrust of other mammals as a part of a fight for survival. The trouble now is that we are in less need of lymbic system than ever before. Yes, there is still a lot of crime. But, compared to the minute-by-minute dangers we faced 2,000 years ago, we are comparatively much safer.
Progress requires us to get comfortable with the counter intuitive i.e. to develop willpower and strength enough to overrule the lymbic system from time to time. Making friends and connecting with people calls for vulnerability. By doing so, we leave ourselves exposed but there isn’t any reward without risk. 2,000 years ago, the act of getting out of bed was risky. That’s no longer the case (thank god).
A personal fitness trainer remarked recently that gyms are filled with men trying to beef up their biceps and chests. It feels like the obvious things to do – they want to look “big armed” and buff after all. But, looking “big armed” and buff is best achieved by working on triceps and the back. The triceps form 1/3rd of the arm while strengthening the back makes us look taller and has a much better overall effect on our look. Counter intuitive.
More examples of counter intuitive?
The best football managers invest most after they win a trophy to ensure their players continue to hustle and avoid complacency.
The more the chaos and uncertainty, the more we require stillness.
The bigger the downturn, the more open our outlook needs to be.
The more we feel the need to scream at the person opposite us, the bigger the need for us to sit down and listen.
We live in a great time with different rules from times when our ancestors lived. We just need to make sure we give ourselves the necessary software updates from time to time.