Guiding Abstractions: Your Brain’s Leader, Your “Self”

How we behave in our personal lives and in our business lives is dependent on who we “are”.  But, that is such a nebulous term.  How do we get at the science of “who we are”?  We’ll start here on the journey of examining how we develop our character and how we can change.

Who are we really?  To some simpler extent who we “are” is what body we have.  We may “be” an athlete, actress, model, weightlifter, or other identities based on body.  That is, we may identify our “self” with the life which is built around the body we have. (The same is true of organizations and businesses that view themselves as a factory, or an office complex, or whatever.)

Yet, at a deeper level we “are” according to how we behave. Most people don’t build their entire life around their body.  They don’t identify themselves as a set of physical states.   Most people think of “self” as something more complex.  Most people think of “self” as an identity which includes personality characteristics (such as funny, smart, or diligent), ways of approaching life (such as values and beliefs), and physical characteristics (such as slim, strong, or short).

Going still deeper it turns out that the most critical aspects of self are the values, beliefs, and expectations which guide what we do with our physical characteristics and life circumstances.  How we think about things turns out to say an awful lot about who we “are”. The most critical aspects of self are not what we are, but what we believe, value, and expect.  These three, with contributions from simpler elements such as goals and habits, form what I call the “guiding abstractions” of personality.  These are ultimately where we really live.  They are ultimately what becomes the center of our personality.  They are our “self”.  They are our true leader.  They determine our personality at home and in business.

We’ve all seen many examples of people with a major mismatch between how a person sees him/herself and how others see him/her.  In these cases, the hard facts typically do not determine the outcome of the person’s life.  Rather, it is the internal beliefs which often determine the outcome.  For example, we’ve seen unimpressive physical specimens become “larger than life” – such as Napoleon.  We’ve seen gorgeous physical specimens, such as Marilyn Monroe, commit suicide.  We’ve seen people who were incredibly funny and could make everyone laugh yet they lived personal lives of desperation and depression. We’ve seen people who “have everything” yet loose everything and die from devolving into drug addiction.  We’ve seen people of no special physical trait whose special gift was an indomitable spirit – like Mother Teresa or Gandhi.  In a seemingly endless litany of examples, there are many people whose lives reveal that the key to life is not what you got in life, but how you think about what you got, and thus what you make of it.

So, what are these things: goals, habits, values, expectations, beliefs?  Let’s have a look at these abstract concepts.

First a disclaimer: people use these abstraction words differently, with differing definitions.  Some of the definitions, even from professional sources, are circular and/or inconsistent.  For example, Webster’s Dictionary defines belief (when used in a psychological sense) as “something that is believed”.  Obviously even they struggled with the word.  With this in mind, the following definitions are offered as reasonable and distinct usages; however, everyone may not agree with the way the words are used here.

Of the five abstraction words, goals are the simplest to understand.  Goals are simply targets: something we aim at in our actions.  Indeed, there is a whole set of studies about how to make good goals: goals which are focused, clearly definable, achievable, and such.  But, in overall concept goals are simple: aim your behavior at something and you have a goal.

A habit is an efficient response learned by recurrent experience with a behavioral situation.  We develop habits for riding a bicycle (problem: defeat gravity, get somewhere).  We develop habits for getting to work (problem: beat traffic, make it efficient, maybe pick up your routine cup of coffee).  We develop habits for responding to people.  We develop habits for lots of situations where life recurrently exposes us to similar problems that benefit from the efficiencies of a well-learned solution.  With a habit we don’t need to “think about it”.  We can just do it.  From our discussion of neuroanatomy (in an earlier post) you can begin to think of habits as being located in the basal ganglia, brainstem, and spinal cord – the deep central aspects of the brain which are particularly adept at efficient repetition.  This is the use of habits – efficiency.  They allow us to do something with less energy, and – notably – they allow us to think about something else while we are doing the habitual activity.  (The ability, as the aphorism says, to “walk and talk at the same time”.)

The last three guiding abstractions are more difficult: values, expectations and beliefs.  Values are most easily understood this way: when you are on a path toward some goal, values determine self-imposed limits to your behaviors.   They regulate what you will or won’t do to achieve your goal.  For example, if you want money you may place the limit that you won’t steal to get it (a value); or, you may set the value that you will work hard to get money (like the commercial said: “We make money the old fashion way.  We earn it”).

Important values extend beyond any single goal to the collection of goals that constitute our hopes and dreams.  Thus, values become a way of life – a part of personality.  Values like not stealing or working hard are simple forms.  Values can be much more complex.  For example, a complex value is to emphasize social networking over academic-study as a way to develop a project.  Whether complex or simple, values limit (by inclusion or exclusion) how you will pursue goals.  Values are often built in childhood and have often become entrenched in brain systems.  So, values are frequently rather hard to change (however, they are generally easier to change than the next two guiding abstractions).

We should digress here for a brief moment.  In your brain there is no such thing as an “idea” as a physical entity.  The brain consists of about 100 billion neurons (and many more cells that support them) and all of our thoughts derive from actions of collections of these neurons.  So, when we adopt a value (or other guiding abstraction discussed here) what we are really doing is programming a group of neurons to respond in certain ways.  Understanding this can help you to understand why some guiding abstractions can be so hard to change.  They are not free floating “ideas”.  They are cellular states that may involve thousands or millions of cells.  For complex reasons (beyond the current topic) shifting the functions of these large constellations of cells can be very difficult, sometimes maybe impossible.

So far we have recognized goals as being a desired targets, and values as being limits to what you will or won’t do along the way.  Next is expectations, which are what you think you will find along the way to your goals (or, more broadly, along your journey through life).  Expectations guide the way we gird ourselves for the journey toward goals.  We may expect the journey to be easy, difficult, or impossible.  We may expect a journey to be personally achievable or to require a team.  We approach the pursuit of the goal differently based on our expectations related to it.  Experience plays an important role in building expectations.  So, depending on the strength of the experience (and how early in life it was experienced), expectations may be difficult to change.  However, they do respond to experience.  So, one of the goals of psychological counseling is to give people different experience which may build different expectations.  Also, “ropes” courses and other experiential-learning environments also serve the same purpose – to expand people’s experiences and thus assist the building of new – and more useful – expectations.

Last, we come to the most difficult of all – beliefs.  Beliefs are over-arching abstractions about how we individually think the world works and how we fit in it.  There are different kinds of beliefs.   They vary as to their degree of abstraction.  This turns out to correlate to their recalcitrance to change.  Circumstantial beliefs are over-arching abstractions regarding particular sets of circumstances.  They tend to be less “personal”, and they are easier to change.  The most difficult of all are existential beliefs.  These are over-arching beliefs about how life proceeds and what is necessary to live in it.  These are often developed very early in life.  In some cases they appear unchangable.

Beliefs have an interesting behavioral curiosity.  Once a belief is formed and the brain sees it as adequate for the circumstance then it tends to become “closed” to further information.  While the person may have been previously “open” to information to form the belief, at a certain stage the belief becomes closed, and relatively impervious to challenge by new information.  At this stage, rather than change a belief in response to challenging information, people often challenge the information in defense of the belief.  The reason for this is that patterns of life tend to be built upon beliefs.  To challenge the belief is not just to challenge the belief itself but rather to challenge the whole set of life patterns and expectations built upon it.  Defense of belief also stems from desire to defend benefits gained through the belief.

One of the most famous examples of this occurred in the confrontation between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church in the 1600’s.  Prior to Galileo the popular view was that the sun and all the planets revolved around the Earth.  Galileo, armed with hard data, argued otherwise to the church – that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  The new belief challenged not only preference and the established “order”, but also challenged the social position of the Church.  Stephen Hawking, the famous cosmologist, has said, “Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science.”  But, no matter.  The Church threatened Galileo with being burned at the stake, not because his data was wrong, but because he challenged a very entrenched existential belief.

Again returning to the neuroanatomy section we can think of beliefs as likely existing mostly in the cerebrum – evolution’s new part to the brain.  To be precise, we cannot actually see a “belief” on a brain scan or other test of brain anatomy or function.  So, we can only speculate on where beliefs exist in the brain.  However, because beliefs are high levels of synthesis and are abstractions, they likely exist predominantly in the cerebral hemispheres.  (No part of the brain is completely isolated from the rest.  It’s all interconnected.  So, undoubtedly neural circuits in lower brain centers contribute to beliefs.  Yet, it remains useful to think of beliefs as largely higher levels of integration in newer parts of the brain.)

Beliefs are difficult to change.  They are more independent of influence from experience than other guiding abstractions.  So, a belief may be maintained even when there is extensive experiential evidence to contradict it.  Much more than with other guiding abstractions, beliefs are subject to what we want to believe.  This becomes critical not only in personal lives but also in business lives.  When a belief is on the line, particularly an existential belief, facts are not very influential.

These perspectives of the differences between goals, habits, values, expectations, and beliefs are critical to helping either people or organizations with change.  By understanding what kind of change is being asked one can plan for what kinds of responses will be required to be successful. While personality is more than just guiding abstractions, these are critical to sense of self and to the ability, and willingness, to adapt.

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