Humans have the freedom to be, as David Foster Wallace wrote, “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms.”
At around 20 centimetres ear-to-ear, you may think your kingdom is limited in size and scope. But within these walls lies everything that makes you who you are. You’ll find the experiences you’ve suppressed and the memories you cherish. You’ll find the magic formulas for your values, beliefs, and identities. Every day, you’ll find tiny armies of soldiers fighting for conflicting causes. You’ll find skyscrapers filled with secretaries trying to organize all the paperwork that comes in. You’ll find your toughest problems and you’ll find the agency you need to overcome these problems. Your tiny skull-sized kingdom is all you have — and it means the world to you.
Human beings are, of course, minded critters. The types of people we are depend in large part on the way we are habituated into life and the ways that we, through experience, train and mould our minds. We are also greatly shaped by our childhood experiences and the environments in which we live. Our status as minded-beings also depends on our standing in social contexts. The ways our bodies are — our race, disabilities, height, age, sexual orientation — certainly shape the way that we become minded. Viewed this way, the mind is an on-going product of both nature (psychology) and nurture (environment).
Anil Seth, in a talk titled Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality suggests that to be minded means to be concerned with the control and regulation of our external and internal worlds. In other words, we are constantly modelling our external and internal environments so we can impose control and regulation upon them. It is through these models that we make sense of our experiences and make sense of what it means to be the minded being we are. Model-creation, however, is a complicated, on-going process. We construct our mental models from all the things that compose us: like our genetic predispositions, experiences, and environments. For Seth, large parts of the mind are essentially focused on taking in actionable data to construct models of how the world normally and most probably is, with the intention of guiding behaviour in anticipation of these expected events.
As data-gathering creatures, we function by creating patterns of similar data-points which have gathered over the years and we use these patterns to make predictions. We are always trying to simplify our data streams by resolving the ambiguities that are naturally embedded in our data points. In this way, we use our models to encounter the world through our simplified, habituated expectations. We can expect the cashier to prompt us to pay for our groceries at the check-out line; we can expect the flight attendant to ask us to put our seatbelts on; we can expect a driver to yield to us when we have the right-of-way; we can expect our siblings to be mad if we take the last piece of cake. These are examples of outcomes that we can expect to materialize because, under similar conditions in the past, they have materialized frequently.
But viewing the mind as something that only serves to recognize patterns and predict behaviours is a seriously limited view. The mind isn’t only a probabilistic, pattern-guessing machine. The mind also has as a primary task the preservation of itself. The mind, in other words, is concerned with encrypting and safeguarding the sacred formulas for the things that are central to us: our values, beliefs, and identities. To do this, it expels trespassers and intruders and protects what is central.
Why is it so difficult for the non-believer and the religious devout to understand each other? Or for two political opponents to have a balanced, uninterrupted conversation? Or why is it so unlikely for a successful and wealthy white man to befriend a poor black woman? Why, in other words, do we cherish and flock to people who are ‘like-minded’ and who ‘understand us? Why do we expel and fear things that are foreign to us?
Seth notes that since our models are concerned with building expectations, then they are also equipped to measure deviations from our expectations. The more something is different to us or our past experiences, the more difficult it becomes for us to discern this thing's status. Our models make a note when people speak foreign languages, pray to different gods, espouse opposite political beliefs, and display different sexual orientations. Things that are further away from our habituated expectations of the world are harder to conceptualize, so we can expect these things to show up to us as relevant. Since these relevant ‘Other-experiences’ are foreign to us, we may feel uncomfortable and uneasy in trying to contend with them. This may be why we resist them.
The mistake of the mind: The perils of default-setting thinking
The ‘default-setting’ of the mind is to protect the values and beliefs that are supposedly central to who we are. We do this by stabilizing around experiences that are familiar and model-enforcing: we befriend people who are similar to us, we enjoy foods that we are used to, we go to places we are comfortable in, we choose to listen to and value opinions that are similar enough to ours. The ‘default-setting’ of the mind is the reason why you have an unwavering dedication to affirm things which are just-like-you and to treat the Other with caution and danger. Default-setting thinking makes us exploit comfortably, rather than explore uncomfortably.
What do we lose when we reinforce default-setting thinking? Why is it difficult to embrace that which is foreign to us?
My contention is that default-setting thinking is a hardwired flaw — a mistake made by the mind. The mind’s primary goal is to preserve itself. The mind commits its first mistake by believing that upholding the central tenets of one’s identity is a strategy for self-preservation. It believes that the best way to preserve itself is to preserve its important contents — like one’s values, beliefs, and identities. It does this by defending against intruders who offer varying viewpoints.
The mind, in other words, works hard to contribute to the illusion that we, as selves, are mostly stable, unchanging things because we are composed of mostly stable, unchanging things. The mind knows that radical changes to one’s identity or orientation may be too much to handle. To hedge against mental states where we cannot ‘understand ourselves,’ or do not ‘feel like ourselves,’ our mind employs its self-substantiating trickery. “Look, you are the same person you were yesterday,” your mind says. And you believe it because it’s uncomfortable not to.
But here is where the mistake lies: adjusting one’s mental model to be more receptive of foreign experiences does not necessitate a full redirection of the self. We can give up default-setting thinking without abandoning our values, beliefs, and identities. We can, as I’ll explore later on, make ourselves incrementally more receptive to foreign experiences by effectively working around the edges of our selves. I don’t need to give up my political beliefs to try a new food; I don’t need to change my religion to enjoy new music; I don’t need to modify my ethics to listen to your opinion without interrupting you. In other words, the mind incorrectly thinks that opening up to foreign experiences requires a big sacrifice of the self. In fact, it usually doesn’t.
The second mistake the mind commits is to trade off long-term well-being at the expense of short term comfort. We think that tending to experiences that are familiar to us will remove the uncertainty and risk found in Other-oriented experiences. This may be true temporarily but is disastrous and counterproductive in the long run. Essentially, what the mind is doing when it chooses to exploit similar experiences is to shrink its domain of comfort. Naturally, we may be inclined to say that a body that feeds on the same limited nutrients every day is a body which is seriously deficient in some way. This body lacks the variety and diversity of nutrients it needs to live well. We should extend the same analogy to the mind. When we unconsciously let our default-setting thinking reduce uncertainties and risks by censoring certain experiences, then our minds become limited, trapped, and deficient. Welcome: you are now in a terribly small bubble.
Yes, it may be true that having a solid and reliable template from which to make sense of experience is not only useful but incredibly practical. Nevertheless, I contend that default-setting thinking is mistaken because we don’t need to act this way to live well. We don’t lose too much when we give up default-setting thinking. In enforcing these two mistakes — stabilizing around identity and seeking to minimize risk and uncertainty — the mind faults itself over and over again.
There are three main ways that default-setting thinking inhibits our ability to flourish and live well. First, default-setting thinking leaves us epistemically inculcated. When our mind is programmed to be closed off to certain experiences, then there is a whole realm of knowledge that we simply don’t have access to. The domain of knowledge which is within our grasps, however, becomes incredibly limited and, as I mentioned before, shrinks over time as we trap ourselves into smaller bubbles of comfort and epistemic domains. A mind that feeds off the same data for too long is a weak, unfortified mind.
Second, epistemic inculcation affects our morally-relevant behaviours. With limited and highly censored information, we are prone to make moral mistakes. Moral decisions are informed, in large part, by our experiences and the information we have from which to decide. If the mind is informationally malnourished, it will either not know how to respond to a moral situation or will often respond incorrectly.
Third, default-setting thinking limits the reach of our virtues and limits our ability to actualize certain virtues. It’s tough to practice Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude, and Courage when we are not willing to take enough risks. There is no growth without risk. All our virtues require taking risks and being vulnerable, both of which default-setting thinking works to minimize. Without being able to cultivate a proper virtuous character, we are also cut short of becoming something worth becoming.
A new orientation
Proven how inhibiting default-setting thinking may be, how can we work towards building and orienting a more fortified mind? Implicit in this discussion is the idea that building mind-models is an active task. This suggests that there may be some strategies we can implement to exercise our agency when it comes to going beyond default-setting thinking.
Tanya Luhrmann, in a TED-talk titled When God Talks Back, suggests that we may be able to conjure our minds into our liking through the practices we engage in. To change ourselves, she suggests, we ought to change the patterns of the life we inhabit and the ends we wish to cultivate. We know our mind is mostly a byproduct of our environments and experiences. Additionally, we know that our minds work in the ways they are habituated to work. So we can, Luhrmann suggests, change our meaning-making processes by adopting different stories and choosing to believe different things. Then, we can orient ourselves to be receptive of these different processes and broaden our pursuit of opening up possibilities that we were unaware of.
Attention, as Carolyn Dicey Jennings mentions in a paper titled I Attend Therefore I Am, can also play a crucial role in changing our ways of being. We are essentially, she argues, what we pay attention to. We make sense of the world through our mental models, and our mental models are formed from our experiences. Our experiences are largely formed from the things we pay attention to. So, a large part of how we think of ourselves and the world is going to be formed from what we are paying attention to. In other words, we can change our mind-models — however incrementally — by shifting our attention.
So, combining both Luhrmann’s and Jenning’s ideas, we can:
(i) identify and choose parts of our default-setting thinking we wish to eliminate (i.e, You want to be more receptive and considerate of people who have opposite political views.)
(ii) orient our attention and beliefs in ways that promote this sought-after position (i.e, reading books from political adversaries, joining a diverse discussion group or book club, befriending someone who doesn’t conform to your views, spend more time reading opinion columns you’ve never bothered to read.)
The idea here is that we could modify the way we think by purposefully setting our minds to habituate to new data points of our choosing. We can, in other words, train our mind to be more sensitive and open to the experiences that are unlike ours. For example, a non-believer can find common ground with a religious devout by spending time with one, reading books about the religion, or attending religious ceremonies. He can learn about religious people who’ve done incredible work to build the country he lives in and loves. These are all examples of active measures we can take to pop our epistemic bubble and allow more knowledge to flow in. We can, effectively, habituate our minds to openness and consideration.
Feeling uncomfortable may be a sign that you are moving in the right direction. Since there is always a tradeoff between stability and exploring possibilities, giving something up at the edges of our identities is always going to feel uncomfortable. When people challenge your political beliefs, or some of your ethical choices, or the foundations of your religion, you are bound to feel challenged and uncomfortable. We have spent lifetimes cultivating identities, beliefs, and opinions that have remained more or less stable over time. So, being open to information that is going to conflict with our avowed beliefs and identities is always going to feel intimating and tough. When we push through these tough and uncomfortable moments and try our best to learn from them, then we are moving away from a point of stability into a point of growth. We are, little by little, debasing our default-setting. So, instead of habituating into comfort, we can habituate into discomfort.
Change yourself or change the world?
Actively fighting back against default-setting thinking is an exercise in changing yourself, and by implication, changing the world. A lot of the work in this process is going to fall on the ‘brain-side’ of things: we need to change what we pay attention to, what we frame as good/bad, and the stories we live by. But, a significant amount of work is also going to fall on the ‘world-side’ of things: we need to change our social circles, make changes to who we interact with, and be exposed to novel places.
Granted, it’s hard to do the tough work of recalibrating our default-setting when the external structures around us are so hard to change. We need to recognize that we live in a world that changes slowly. In our world, in-groups and out-groups are everywhere. Media-outlets treat political commentary as war-like and many communities are economically segregated by race or religion. Chances are your friends and the people you listen to are more or less like you. With that in mind, we need to think about how to strategically ‘build a world’ that will promote your new goals. Start small.
Of course, none of this is easy work. This process is messy and inconvenient. Many of us will prefer the comforts of our default setting over the thrill of novelty. In these moments we need to be reminded of David Foster Wallace’s ‘tiny skull-sized kingdoms.’ To cultivate a kingdom worth living in is the task of a lifetime.