Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How To Know Yourself

Why the best way to know ourselves isn't through introspection

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In the past, I've been humbled to discover things about myself I didn't want to know: as I wrote in The Good Guy Contract, that I believed I needed other people to like me to be happy, and as I wrote in Keeping Romance Alive, that I was warm when in fact I wasn't. As surprising as learning these things was, perhaps even more surprising was that learning them surprised me. Why wouldn't I always have known these things? Why do the things we discover about ourselves so often run counter to our expectations? How is it our view of ourselves so often turns out to be entirely wrong?

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The answers to these questions are slowly beginning to emerge from research in neuroscience. Freud, it turns out, had it more right than he knew: far more of the "we" that we consider "us" lives beneath our conscious purview than we ever imagined. Not only are we composed of multiple "selves" often in conflict with one another—unconscious programs, or "zombies" as neuroscientists like to call them, that run far beneath our conscious awareness—the vast majority of our behavior comes from their interactions with each other, not with our conscious selves. (Studies have even shown our conscious minds may not even drive what we've always considered them to drive, becoming aware of the intent to move, in one study, almost half a second after the command to move fires from the pre-motor cortex!) As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: "The mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does."

The conscious mind, however, is a great explainer. It's irresistibly drawn into making sense of the world and everything in it, including itself. Unfortunately, it prefers deluded explanations that keep its view of the world intact to true ones that threaten to shatter it. (The most dramatic example of this comes from experiments in which neurosurgeons have stimulated the motor cortices of awake patients, causing them to move their hands. When asked why they moved their hands, patients typically give answers like, "I was waving at that nurse.")

Given our conscious mind's propensity to tell stories that make the world cohere even at the expense of the truth, as well as the fact that most of our behavior emerges from places in our minds unseen, it's little wonder we're so often wrong about why we actually do the things we do, and the type of people we actually are. Add our ego-driven need to appear to be all things virtuous and good into the mix and we find ourselves mixing a potent recipe for significant self-delusion.

Which isn't to say we can't see the truths about why we do the things we do—just that the truth is quite often less obvious than we might think—that we can be utterly certain we're right and still be completely wrong. That our "truth meter" can be easily misled when it comes to self-knowledge is quite unsettling to realize. But as we all have a visual blind spot of which we aren't aware until someone points it out, we have mental blind spots of which we aren't aware as well. Unlike being shown how objects can be made to disappear behind our visual blind spot, however, having truths pointed out to us that hide behind our mental blind spots isn't necessarily accompanied by a joyful sense of discovery.

Yet once we understand intellectually that we do have mental blind spots, we can leverage that understanding to become more accurate in our self-appraisals. One way to do this, once we fully recognize what unreliable storytellers we are, is to attempt to completely ignore what we want to be true about ourselves or the reasons for our actions and, like an unbiased researcher, imagine ourselves as disinterested third parties hypothesizing about ourselves from the only data such third parties would have available to them: our observable actions. For, in fact, people who know us reasonably well but who aren't bound by our biases may have, paradoxically, a clearer view of the truth about us than we do ourselves.

Which suggests an even better way to get an accurate view of ourselves may be, ironically, to ask other people. If genuine self-knowledge is what we're after, the best way to get it may be to summon up the courage to hear the truth and simply ask close friends and family members what we want to know. "Am I warm?" "Am I honest?" "Am I fun?" We may think we already know the answers to these questions, but sometimes we don't. Others, of course, may come at such an exercise with their own agendas and biases, but if you ask enough people such biases tend to cancel out. It then becomes a question—another one whose answer we may think we know but which we actually don't—of just how courageous we are.

 

Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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