Thought — 1 Min Read

About Us

by Case Greenfield, May 6, 2022

Thought – 1 Min Read

About Us

by Case Greenfield

May 6, 2022

If you were asked to describe us, human beings, in just a few words, what would you say? What is the quintessential essence of who we are?

To me, the answer is the following.

We are a species of living beings that evolved on planet Earth. Fundamentally, we are Earthlings, ie. adjusted to the physical conditions of our planet. Of all Earthlings, we are the ones whose brain most tangibly exists of two parts, the “old brain” – or limbic system/brainstem – and the “new brain” – or neocortex. Daniel Kahneman calls it respectively system 1 and system 2. I call it emotion and ratio.

Evolutionary, the new brain was (my words) ‘added on top of our old brain’. It has a dual structure. Apparently, it was evolutionary advantageous to add a different, additional structure to the old brain, working in a different way and hence creating different intelligence. And that is fantastic … and it is a problem.

Simply said, the old brain produces unconscious, unplanned, intuitive and emotional behavior, and the new brain produces conscious, planned, deliberative, logical, well-considered behavior. Kahneman calls it respectively fast and slow ‘thinking’.

What is uniquely typical for us is that with other species, who have this split structure of the brain, the split is much more unbalanced than in our brain. In animals’ brains the old systems is the undisputed boss. Their new brain is underdeveloped. In our brain the old system also is the boss, but not undisputed. If we make an effort, the new system can be the boss. Most, if not all other Earthlings cannot even make that effort for a substantial time.

What makes us unique is the sort-of balance, be it laborious, between our old and new brain, between our emotions and ratio.

Unfortunately, our old and new brain are often at odds. Because they produce different types of intelligence, they create different types of insights and different behaviors. Often right out conflicting. But it’s not black and white. It is not that the new brain is always right and the old brain always wrong. Sometimes it’s the one, sometimes the other. The art of using our brain properly is to be able to use either the one or the other part, or both, depending of the situation we are in.

Interestingly, using the new brain costs a lot of energy to use and it depletes quickly. Whenever depleted, we automatically fall back tot system 1. It takes prudence, effort and careful consideration to effectively use system 2. Not so many of us have learned to use it well.

The dual structure is a blessing and a curse. It clearly is a blessing. Just look at how much more than other species we are capable of thriving as a species. We rule the world. And it’s a curse. The old and new brain are constantly conflicting with each other.

As far as we can go back in our history, the battle of the old and new brain has been the dominant factor. Once you understand it, you see it everywhere. The battle between ratio and emotion. As a result of the duality, our brains are not at peace. Often, there is conflict in our brain. Sometimes, it’s a war zone. And it drives many people crazy, literally and metaphorically.

(If I were a neuroscientist, I would definitely want to study the connections and interactions between the old and new brain.)

The most prominent way how it shows is through mind models, the realities we create to shape ourselves. Wishful thinking versus facing the brutal facts. Mind models are usually a mix of ratio and emotion. Clearly, the ratio part creates good realistic plans and disciplined execution. But that is not all. The emotion part creates – sometimes totally unrealistic – hope resulting in supernatural perseverance, where ratio would have given up long time ago.

I’m still wondering about imagination. Does it come from the old or the new brain?

Anyhow, maybe the most interesting and most promising result of our dual brain structure may the when we combine the two parts. That is probably the real treasure of the brains that evolution gave us. You can compare it with marriage. A man alone can achieve certain things, a woman alone can achieve certain things. Together they can achieve great things. Sometimes, it comes with disagreement, dispute or conflict – diverging interests. Sometimes, the two perfectly resonate and strengthen each other to unimaginable highs – converging interests.

The resonance of ratio and emotion is the true treasure of our brain, that makes us uniquely who we are.

And, of course, the unanswered question is: what will come after homo sapiens? How will our brains evolve further? Or will we never know, because we will find ways to enhance our brains in a non-evolutionary way, be it biologically or electronically – or both? I don’t know. Homo deus? We will see …

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