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Socially Acceptable

8 minute read
by Alex Hillman

My reading regiment has been predominantly non-fiction for most of my adult life, which is a bummer and a half. I struggle to read fiction these days, mostly because there’s not enough time in the day to read all of the non-fiction stuff I want to. Also, for all of my love for storytelling, most non-fiction has a hard time roping me in anymore. It’s a shame, really. I’m working on fixing that.

I did, however, decide that I needed a break from my “business and communications” shelf. My dear friend Amy Hoy, the bookworm she is, recommended some science. This is how I stumbled upon Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. I can’t say that I’d expected to find myself immersed in science text, but I’m pretty sure the chances are higher if the text was written by Gilbert.

Inside, he puts together a strong argument for why we’re so bad at making choices that will make us happy in our futures. As a species, we’re driven towards instant gratification and it’s getting worse – Gilbert looks into the reasons why.

For a book whose title suggests that it’d be found in the self help section of Borders, it’s actually full of science. And not just science, neuroscience. Heady shit, pun intended. Luckily for me, it’s mixed with things I’m a little more comfortable with, like behavioral economics and a lick of psychology. But this isn’t a review of the book. It’s a new posit of my own based on some of the things I learned inside.

Evolution

Assuming we weren’t all brought here on a spaceship, I think that I’m comfortable with the theory that we evolved from some ancestral species. There’s supposedly evidence (citation needed) that right around the time that humans began to evolve towards the “intelligent” species we know and love today, making and using tools and organizing into societies, another physiological change happened. Our brain, the most advanced animal brain known on planet earth (though we’re biased), went through a remarkable growth spurt.

It didn’t just get bigger, but it got bigger in all the right places.

The majority of that growth took place in the frontal lobe. Enough so to force the cranium to change shape during that evolutionary phase just to make room for the extra goodies inside.

So correlation isn’t causation, but it’s certainly worth noting that these two events happened in near succession.

So why would the human brain grow in a particular way that may or may not have led to the foundations of society as we know it? Let’s start with the fact that the frontal lobe is responsible for, among other things, managing consequences.

Gilbert narrows this further to a “feature” of the lobe that seems to be unique to humans, and he calls this feature “futuring”. It’s different from “predicting” the future. It’s also different from the instinctive compositing of past over present to influence an action, commonly found in creatures with simpler (or no) brains than ours. An example, loosely borrowed from the book

Rabbit: I smell something. Bear: Oh, look, a rabbit. Rabbit: Last time I smelled that, a bear almost ate me. That sucked. Bear: I’m gonna eat that rabbit. Rabbit: If I don’t avoid that smell, that sucky thing will happen again. Bear: Dinner in 5…4…3 Rabbit: I’m outta here! Bear: 2…hey! Where’d he go!?

That’s not futuring, and doesn’t require an advanced frontal lobe. Rabbits, squirrels, even jellyfish and sea cucumbers (which have NO brain whatsoever)  instinctively behave this way.

Futuring is the consideration of ones future. An element of thoughtfulness towards things that “could be”.

Connecting the dots, it makes some sense that when our brains evolved the capability to consider what “could be”, we’d start creating tools and subsequently, society and all of the goodies (and baddies) that come with it.

Futuring

Again, we’re not talking about the ability to predict the future, but instead consider possible outcomes from actions in the present. Further, we think about the different things we could do now to achieve a desired future from a set of possible futures, and the paths between them.

It’s our ability to future that has desiring to achieve anything in the first place, and part of that human uniqueness.

Our handy dandy frontal lobes also manages consequences. It recognizes more than just the positive potential results, but the negative potential results of a decision or action. Tempered with societal norms, it’s this balance that keeps us progressing as a society while still relatively safe from ourselves.

Well, most of the time.

Futuring also comes a whole slew of problems. Anxiety, for one. I’d suggest a theory that the increased level of anxiety in our lives over the last several decades is the result of hyper-connectivity. Rather than blaming the anxiety rate on the volume of information we’re expected to consume information (which surly doesn’t help the situation), I’d point a finger at the contents of the information itself.

Today, we’re more aware of a greater number of potential futures we could be experiencing than ever before. We used to see just a few strata of society:

  1. people worse off than us
  2. people like us
  3. people just a little better off than us
  4. people WAY better off than us

The gap between 3 and 4 being huge, very few people really considered the possibility of achieving #4. The greatest thing we could strive for was to jump from 2 to 3. And once you were at 3, there would be a new 3. A hierarchy, a ladder, where each rung only really becomes visible once you’d reached the previous one.

This notion is reflected in many generations of hierarchy, in the workplace, in education, in government, and society.

We’ll come back to this ladder in a moment.

An empty room with no chair in it

What happens if you take away the ability to future? In Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert recounts some studies of interactions with patients who’d had frontal lobotomies performed on them. See, in the 1930’s, some doctors found that their patients who were suffering from extreme forms of mental illness could be “cured” of their psychosis (the symptom, not the cause) by scrambling their frontal lobe with a giant ice pick. Neat, huh?

The weird thing is, these patients, along with other cases of accidental damage to the frontal lobe, sometimes returned to relative normal behavior (rather than the more common vegetable-like state you’d expect). But while they could hold a conversation where their veggie-brethren couldn’t, they’d lost their ability to answer questions about things happening in their future.

Asking someone with this kind of damage to their frontal lobe what they were going to do tomorrow yielded confusion, while they retained the relative ability to recall from their past and be aware of their present. This is an awkward concept, but was cleverly illustrated by Gilbert:

Imagine being put into an empty room, and being told to sit in the chair. Clearly, you’re aware of the walls, ceiling, and floor. Any entrances or exits are clearly marked. You even know what a chair looks like. But there isn’t one – despite the clear instruction to sit in it.

That’s the sort of confusion experienced by someone with the “futuring” part of their frontal lobe damaged.

Before, I mentioned that the two parts of the frontal lobe that kept each other in check were “futuring” and “consequence management”. Let’s talk a little bit about consequences and risk, and get back to our ladder analogy.

Risk-taking

With visibility into society through vast oceans of information at our fingertips, we see that there are actually more rungs in that seemingly massive gap between 3 and 4. It may be possible to jump ahead to one of the hundreds…if not thousands…of rungs between 3 and 4, without needing to take the small steps in between. When industries cross over in interesting ways – like they do at Indy Hall, for instance – we become aware not just of new runs on our own ladders, but of more ladders in parallel that we can jump across.

As necessary, we can move up, down, left, and right, in our ladders of life. It’s like a game of Frogger.

Further jumps require bigger risks (and sometimes, bigger points are scored). But since we’re able to consider the potential future at the next rung, we put ourselves through all sorts of crazy trying to figure out how many rungs to skip.

Realistically, most people don’t climb much at all. Some people climb, slow and steady, putting one hand in front of the other. Some get lucky and realize that they can skip a rung if they stretch just a little bit, but still don’t let go of the ladder to begin with.

And yet some, so eager to arrive at the future they’ve decided that they want, take seemingly ludicrous leaps.

So what happens when the part of your frontal lobe that protects you from yourself  – the consequence management part of your brain – isn’t there to balance out the “futuring” part of your frontal lobe? What sad, dangerous lives could these people live, with such a critical part of their brain missing, damaged, or otherwise malformed?

Many have found a socially acceptable label, self-appointed or otherwise.

I wonder how many people would be scrambling to be an entrepreneur if it were viewed as an affliction instead of being glorified?

I’m not an entrepreneur because I don’t want to be one.

I’m just me, because I don’t have any other choice of who I can be.

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Hey, thanks for reading!

Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.