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We like to think of ourselves as highly evolved and rational beings who think, feel, and act in ways that are intentional and reasonable. We hold this perception because it enables us to believe that we are “captains” of our lives and help us believe that we are in control of the choices we make and the direction our lives go. In reality, considerable evidence in both psychology and behavioral economics demonstrates that we are far from the Mr. Spock-like thinkers and actors that we hold ourselves up to be.
The reason why we don’t always think or behave in ways that are logical.
Our Unconscious Mind
The unconscious part of our minds is outside of our conscious awareness and is not easily accessible, meaning we can’t just conjure its content up like we can a seemingly forgotten telephone number (that resides in our subconscious ). This lack of ready availability makes our unconscious minds both mystifying (“Why do I keep doing things that hurt me ?”) and seemingly beyond our control, often leading to a sense of frustration and helplessness.
The unconscious mind consists of three forces that often lead us down unhealthy roads.
First, despite our being supposedly so evolved compared to the rest of the animal kingdom with our cerebral cortex and, more importantly, our pre-frontal cortex, we frequently still respond to the world as animals driven by our primitive instincts, emotions, and reactions (e.g., survival instinct, fear , and fight or flight, respectively). Not surprising given that these unconscious forces have been driving all living beings since we climbed out of the primordial muck around 3.5 billion years ago. In contrast, our cerebral cortex has only been around for about 250,000 years. L
Second, carrying around emotional baggage from our childhood is, for most of us, a part of the human condition. Early in our lives, we develop certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that help protect us from some perceived threat and survive in hostile environs of varying degrees. For example, to feel safe around an angry parent, we learned to be passive and accommodating. To be rewarded by a demanding parent, we became a perfectionist . These protective mechanisms were highly functional when we were young. Unfortunately, in adulthood, what had been functional can become dysfunctional
Lastly, the more that primitive forces and emotional baggage direct our lives, the more those characteristic ways of acting on and reacting to our world become habitual and the first response we make, even when it may not be appropriate or healthy. For example, when we perceive someone judging us, we react with defensiveness and anger because that’s the way we’ve always reacted, even though such a reaction usually does more harm than good.
The PFC allows us to engage in what is commonly referred to as “executive functioning ,” which involves the ability to guide our behavior in more intentional ways by weighing pros and cons, calculating risk and rewards, deciding what is best for us in the present, and, at an important level, empowering our conscious mind to override our unconscious mind.
At the same time, I don’t want to completely discredit any value that our unconscious minds may have; Mr. Spock made poor decisions despite his strong sense of what is logical. The unconscious mind isn’t driven solely by unhealthy forces. On the contrary, whether you want to call it your gut, intuition , spirit, or what have you, we all have the capacity to allow our non-linear and emotional sense to guide us in making healthy choices and steering the direction we take in our lives. This intuitive part of us can draw on information that may not be readily available to our conscious mind,
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