I have been thinking and reading a lot lately about the way people think. Reading the novel, “Black Boy” by Richard Wright and listening a lecture about the author and changes he had to make in order to get it published in a popular format is the station where this train started. The story is about a black child growing up in the south during the early 1900’s and how he comes to raise his consciousness above the level of the stifling cultural gridlock of the racial caste system with its predetermined roles and attitudes. At one point he had to teach himself to play the part of the “good nigger” in order to get work so that he would not to starve. From then on he lives in two worlds, his own mind in which he is discovering philosophy and literature, and his life in which he must play a demeaning role that has rules about how to act in almost every situation. He had to act like he was unable to think clearly while he was aware of the fact that he knew more about thinking than the people who expected him to be ignorant. We all live with rules of behavior, but mostly they coincide with the way we think with some minor adjustments in certain situations. This man had to think of how white people thought about him as a young black person. His survival depended on it. I have never been in such a situation, but he made me feel it and know it. This to me is an invaluable gift of understanding, when we are able to feel and know a reality that we have not experienced in the corporeal world.
At times reading this book was deeply disturbing, to see the way people can treat other people when ignorance and fear prevail over reason and empathy. I came away from this book with a feeling that, even though the history of western philosophy and literature travels a very bumpy road, if a person can learn to read and understand a broad range of literature, he or she is more capable of overcoming some of the stifling aspects of their culture. Reading is the best way to find new ways of thinking and gaining an understanding of the broader world, and writing is the best way to get people to understand your thoughts and ideas and where they came from.
Shortly after finishing “Black Boy” I started reading a book about the way the brain works called “How We decide” by Jonah Lehrer. I have not finished this one, but so far the book has shown how both feelings and reason are useful in making decisions. Each has strengths and weaknesses. In order to make good decisions we have to use the cognitive strategy best suited to the task. For decisions which have a split second or very short time frame and lots of variables, going with your gut instincts, or what feels the best, is actually the most effective strategy, especially if you have experience or have practiced in similar conditions. Your subconscious mind will alert you to dangers or benefits through your feelings. But, you have to make the decision mostly trusting intangible evidence. However, you don’t want to use your feelings when buying a car or making long term life decisions. The book also discusses the limitations on the amount of information the human mind can handle and how with each added level of complexity the ability of the human mind to make good assumptions diminishes. The book is filled with real life examples and academic studies, lots of evidence and complexity. I wonder if it will actually help me make better decisions. Anyway it is fascinating. Kind of a users guide to the brain.
So how do these books connect. I am not sure, but somewhere in our brain is place that can understand things that we have not experienced. We can visualize things we have not seen and hear music we have never listened to with our ears. This is part of our mind we use to think our most complex thoughts. I believe it is the place where empathy begins. When I try to understand how another person might see my behavior, that is the point where I can become a more effective moderator of culture, steering it toward equality and tolerance. The decisions we make every day affect our society. If you encounter people responding to the world out of ignorance and fear and you can identify it, then you can confront it. You can decide to move in a different direction. Even though that path may be a difficult one, you can only choose it if you can see it.
I will leave you with this link to one of my favorite examples of a critical thinking fail, the battle of wits from “the Princess Bride” in which Vizini tries to outwit the Man in Black. Vizini obviously needed to add another level of complexity to his thought process.