This is my keynote address from the 2016 Georgia College Convocation. If you would rather see it than read it, here it is. The written version is below.
Welcome to you all, and thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today. Before I get into the meat of what I’d like to say to you, please humor me for a minute while I tell you just a few of the things I personally believe:
I believe you are incredibly fortunate to be at this university. It is hard to imagine a more ideal place – a public education that is the equivalent of an expensive private university on a beautiful campus in a lovely small town with a brilliant faculty dedicated to the art of teaching who will give you the kind of personalized attention that is so hard to get elsewhere.
And I believe that your generation is on the right track. Don’t listen to those who denigrate your generation. You know who really knows you? We do. The faculty and staff sitting around you spend the majority of their time interacting with your generation, and I, for one, see that you all, in far greater numbers than in recent decades, are hungering for lives that are meaningful rather than simply chasing the almighty dollar. Please chase meaning!
Also I believe that talking at people does not promote learning. Learning requires that you, the learner, be engaged – the more deeply the better. So as I speak today, I am inviting you to be engaged with me. I am going to ask you questions. These aren’t rhetorical questions; I actually want you to answer them in your heads. Sometimes, I’m going to be silent for a few moments to let you think. I know that’s a little weird, but I am going for it.
For the meat of my discussion with you today, I want to talk to you about something WE believe, here, as an institution. We believe in the power of reason. You may not fully understand what it means to be at a liberal arts college yet, but one thing that it means is that we are deeply devoted to helping you learn how to think, how to reason. The Georgia College experience is based on what we call “The 3 R's: Reason, Respect, and Responsibility,” and today I’d like to focus on reason. I want to convince you that it is not your reason that is making the majority of your decisions, but actually an elephant.
Here’s the thing, you feel like you are making conscious, reasoned decisions all the time. But the truth of the matter is this: the vast majority of the decisions our brains make are made by the more ancient parts of our brain, which hijack our rational mind, usually without us realizing it. This includes both small daily decisions as well as the most important decisions we make in life. Let’s look at why this is.
The first part of your brain to develop in the womb is the brain stem, which is governed mostly by instinct. The second part of your brain to develop houses the amygdala, which is the seat of memory and emotion but not reason. Now, the neocortex is the final part of the brain to develop, and it is the seat of the intellect and abstract reasoning. It does have the ability to evaluate messages coming from the lower two parts of the brain, but the problem is, it often doesn’t.
Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt described this situation as a rider on an elephant. The elephant represents the lower two parts of the brain. It is powerful, hard to control, and wants its way. The rider represents the upper brain. The rider holds the reins and has the real intellect, but it struggles to control the elephant. So picture that – little you on the back of a huge elephant. The elephant can be tamed, but it isn’t easy, and the rider must be vigilant. Of course any metaphor like this will be overly simplistic, but it will help us better understand why developing your ability to reason is far more important than you think.
I can’t express what a difference it can make in your life to even just be able to recognize when your elephant is making decisions for you vs. when your rider is. Hint: Most of the time it is the elephant. Your reason generally makes pretty good decisions, but your lower brain – not so much. You MUST learn some methods for taming your elephant, or you, your smart essential you, isn’t going to be the one running your life.
The dominance of the elephant was a godsend when we were hunter-gatherers. We needed to be easily frightened to avoid being prey. We needed to eat as much fat and sugar as possible on the rare occasions when it was available because it might be a long time until we had such high-energy food again. But in modern society, the dominance of the elephant can be difficult. I’m going to tell you about four things your elephant is doing and why they are problematic, and I’m going to give you some ideas to strengthen your rider and tame your elephant.
First of all, have you ever noticed how much your brain talks to you? Human brains almost never stop talking. The majority of the time, that voice is your elephant. The good news is that this is completely normal. Much of what it generates is fairly random, and your rider hardly even notices. When it generates something shocking or scary or cruel, then you notice. Unless your brain is deeply engaged in something, it gets hooked and is taken on a ride. Sometimes the ride is silly or pleasurable. Sometimes is it dramatic, like when we replay an argument over and over, only this time we say what we wish we had said. Sometimes we analyze the ever-loving crap out of what someone else said or did. Sometimes the ride is awful and the internal judge criticizes or belittles us.
How often does your brain do these kinds of things?
I’m going to repeat that and then be quiet for a moment and let you really think about this: How often does your brain do these kinds of things? (pause)
And why is this a problem? Well first of all, sometimes those rants are hurtful. The elephant tells you you are worthless or incompetent or worse. See all these impressive people sitting up here? Their brains do it too. Everyone’s brain tells them terrible things. Why would your elephant do this to you? Because those lower parts of your brain are the seats of fear. It is the language the elephant knows, and it works. It makes you worry. It was designed to do this. It will always do this. These are often referred to as “automatic thoughts” for that very reason; you can’t control their arrival. But here is where reason comes in; you can challenge these thoughts. You can say, “Wait. Am I really incompetent? I’m competent in all kinds of things. Elephant, hush!” You should start doing this immediately. The next negative weirdness your brain throws out there, just say, “Elephant, hush!” Which will hopefully make you laugh, which will also keep you from believing that junk.
For most people, their lower brain also frustrates fairly easily. You know when three things go wrong in a row and your lower brain says, “This is going to be a terrible day.” You can say, “Elephant, seriously? I know you get frustrated easily, but in the great scheme of things, none of what just happened is all that bad, and it certainly doesn’t logically follow that the rest of the day will be bad unless you make it bad. Hush!”
It is also a problem because you start to believe the stuff your lower brain generates is real. Clifford Geertz wrote that, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun.” You imagine what other people are thinking and feeling, and you start to believe that’s true, when in reality you made it all up. You analyze a situation you actually know very little about, and you think you’ve found the answer. We do it so much, that we hardly realize we are doing it.
Because of the fact that our brains rarely stop talking, we spend the majority of our lives trapped in mental spinning with no essential reality. It is junk. We stumble around assigning motivations to others that are largely bunk, lost in fictional spinning thoughts. But once you are aware that you are doing this, you can learn to stop a lot of the spinning off before it gets so far. Whenever you catch yourself doing this, you just say, “Wait. You are spinning again. Come back.” And then you focus on reality, something right in front of you like a sound or the trees or your breathing. You will have to do this A LOT because it is the nature of the brain to spin off like this very frequently. But the good news is that you can get adept at halting this more and more quickly, and eventually you are spending more time in reality and less time in fearful or meaningless fantasy worlds. Take a moment and think about this: how much of your time is spent totally present, just taking in whatever is happening around you without a running commentary in your head? (pause.)
And I’m not saying that you should never do something like analyzing a situation; it’s just that there is a big difference between when your elephant, with its tendency toward random or unreasonable associations, analyzes a situation while you are driving vs. you setting aside time to sit down and use your reason to sensibly analyze a situation without attributing motivations to others that you can’t possibly know.
So #2. What else does the elephant do that is problematic? Well, it wants what it wanted for the hunter-gatherer: fat, sugar, and sex - all things we needed to stay alive a long time ago. It wants you to stay away from anything it perceives as scary. It wants you to conserve your energy. Imagine you are on the sofa and there is something you know you need to do. The elephant will not generally want you to do that thing because it is programed to get you to conserve your energy. You get this very powerful sensation that you shouldn’t get up, and then comes the rationalizing. “You worked hard today, you deserve to rest. Just watch this one more movie, and then you’ll do that other thing.” Your elephant is a master at this. But for the most part, your lower brain does not have your best interest at heart. Your reason believes in getting things done. The elephant does not.
Think about this. Ready? Think about all the things you tend to do when you’ve had a long day and you want to relax. (pause). Most of us watch TV, surf the Internet, eat some junk food, shop, or troll social media. But here’s the thing: how often does any of that leave you feeling actually rejuvenated? (pause) One day I started paying attention to how I felt after I had done things like that. And what I discovered was that I almost never felt better than before I did them, and often I felt worse. Most of these things are just means of numbing out or escaping, which the elephant loves. My elephant is constantly telling me that these things will make me feel better, but they don’t. So I did what most people would do when faced with this realization; I got some sheep. Let me explain: When I let my reason take over and question my lower brain, I had to get real about what truly revitalizes me. I listed some things I found actually rejuvenating such as interacting with the natural world, embarking on adventures with my husband, and taking on new tasks that required me to think creatively. Getting sheep has made those things happen for me. Do I still engage in that other crap sometimes? Sure. But that junk is still is almost never truly satisfying.
You too can do this. How much of your time is spent doing things that aren’t very satisfying to you? And what does truly rejuvenate you? Go ahead. I’ll let you think. (pause.)
#3. Another problem with the elephant is that it desperately wants life to be good all the time. But you know that life is often difficult. Being frustrated by the fact that life is often difficult is like being frustrated by the fact that grass is green. If you had a friend who was deeply frustrated that grass is green you would say, “Dude, that’s just the way it is. You have GOT to get over this.” So too should we say to our elephant, “Things are often not the way you want them to be. You have GOT to get over wanting it to be otherwise.”
So what do we do about this? You can allow yourself to hold life’s inevitable difficulties differently and change your relationship with them. You practice not running from what you don’t like. My new mantra is, “Be here and breathe. My whole life has let to this moment; what is it offering me?”
#4. And did you know that when it comes to your most deeply held beliefs, often it is the elephant who is making the decisions? Why is it that people will rarely let go of cherished ideas even when provided with strong evidence that refutes their position? Research from Jonathan Haidt and others suggest that when you take a position on something, it is because your lower brain generates a “gut feeling,” often based in some kind of fear or need, and then the higher brain invents an argument to support that feeling. Let me repeat that: your lower brain generates a “gut feeling,” often based in some kind of fear or need, and then the higher brain invents an argument to support that feeling. Our beliefs may seem based in reason, but generally they aren’t.
It was extremely important for hunter-gatherers to agree with those closest to them because being shunned could be deadly, so the elephant strives to keep our beliefs in tune with those in our social group. This makes us easy prey for politicians and the media who know how to play on our fears to keep us tuned in. But here’s where reason can help. If you recognize that this is what’s happening, you can look up the actual data on any given matter (from the least biased resources you can find) and then work very hard to shush the elephant, who fears this process.
This is something a liberal arts education is purpose-made to help you learn to do, if you will let it. Learn to love the feeling of having your mind changed. I am oddly giddy when someone says something that flips some aspect of my worldview. I went to a liberal arts college myself; maybe that’s where I learned that.
So in summary, let reason take charge of your life more often. Let me remind you how to do that:
I will close with a quotation from George Washington, which sums up well where most of you are in life right now. “I am embarked on a wide ocean, boundless in its prospect, in which, perhaps, there is no safe harbor to be found.”
Safe harbor isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Your elephant may think it is, but let your reason guide you, and allow that wide ocean to be a fascinating journey rather than something you race across to get to the closest, safest shore.