The Confabulator: Don’t miss out on the heavenly glory

Don’t think, feel. It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.

Bruce Lee

Moral/Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt cleverly reveals one of the most interesting facts about the human brain in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt presents the metaphor of the Elephant and the Rider. Where conscious thought is the rider, and the elephant is the rest of us. The elephant represents all our other systems, of which there are many, that can conflict or aid the rider. These include our temptations, our lusts, our emotions, our creativity, everything that goes on behind the threshold of conscious awareness, which turns out is most processes.

One of the most shocking discoveries is something Haidt calls “The Confabulator”. The confabulator was discovered when doctors severed the corpus callosum, the largest bundle of nerves connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, in an effort to stop epileptic seizures. The surgery worked, but some fascinating side effects resulted. The most notable was the confabulator, a part of our brain that instantaneously, without hesitation, creates a narrative to explain our decisions, scenarios, and perceptions.

The split brain patients were told to match up certain items together, which were displayed on two separate screens on the left side of view and the right side of view. For some reason, our right brains handle everything on our left side, and the left hemispheres handles everything on the right side of the body. This includes the left/right areas of our visual field and our body parts. When a split-brain patient is asked to match up obvious items on the left and right side of their visual field, the two hemispheres cannot communicate. The split-brain patients would make ridiculous matches like a shovel and a chicken when chicken feet were the other option. When asked to explain their decision the confabulator would instantaneously and without hesitation make up some story, for instance, “you need the shovel to shovel the chicken s***.”

The split-brain patients were mostly normal, but would sometimes act in strange ways. Another example was when a patient randomly got up and walked out of the room in the middle of an experiment, and when asked where he was going he replied “I’m going to get a coke”. Split-brain patients even suffered what’s called a alien limb syndrome, where one hand would act in strange ways entirely unwarranted by the consciousness of the individual. The alien limb would even try to strangle the patient if they would not cooperate with certain actions.

This is all to say that we have many different systems in our minds, and at times they conflict, but I specifically want to focus on the confabulator. Our story making system, the system that instantly comes up with some narrative to explain ourselves. The confabulator can be of use at times, but many times it can simply get in the way. The confabulator let’s us let go of strange sounds at night, or helps us comfort our friends when we have no clue what to say. But say you were asked to explain why you liked a certain piece of art. Why? You would probably come up with some reason and actually believe it, but it is most certainly not why you were compelled towards that art.

There is something deep within us, an like/dislike, approach/withdraw system, that compels us towards certain stimuli. We may like a piece of art, we may think something is wrong, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we don’t exactly know why it’s wrong or why we like the art, we just do. The confabulator gets in the way of our experience in this way, we are drawn towards certain things, we are fascinated, dream, wonder, and when someone asks us to explain our ambitions and dreams, the confabulator does it’s best to communicate, but in reality we simply like it. We are drawn to it, almost like it’s our destiny.

This brings us back to our super awesome Bruce Lee quote. Which I never understood until I read Jonathan Haidt’s explanation of the confabulator. At times our conscious thought just gets in the way, next time you like something, don’t try and understand why, because if you concentrate on trying to figure it out, you’ll simply miss all that heavenly glory.

Don’t think, feel. It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.

Bruce Lee

Hustle it up!

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