Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
Michael Shermer's TEDTalk, "The Pattern Behind Self-deception" is both groundbreaking and earth-shattering. The neuroscience Shermer cites in his talk is tight, his examples are strong and his conclusions far-reaching. The implications that many have drawn from his talk regarding larger belief systems are beyond my expertise as a clinical psychologist and so I will (wisely or cowardly -- you choose) sidestep these arguments.
I do however, think that one of the factors that Dr. Shermer stumbles upon in his talk has a wide applications for the field of clinical psychology, which is this:
If Shermer is right (and he is), and that our default setting is to see patterns where they don't exist because the cost of being wrong (that there is no pattern) is usually much higher than the cost of being right (that there is a pattern) then I have some bad news for you:
We are all just wired for anxiety.
Let me break it down:
Let's say something bad happens to us: We have a breakup, a breakdown, a trauma, an insult or injury of any kind. This leads us to seek out patterns in our environments that could signify the possibility of future pain. In fact, Shermer says that when we feel uncertain (like after a trauma) we will be even more prone to seeking out patterns, possibly seeing them where they don't exist.
This desperate pattern seeking is, in essence, the pernicious spiral of anxiety: We are afraid of what's next so our minds exit the present to try to solve an unsolveable math problem about our futures. The reason the problem is unsolveable is that all of the variables don't yet exist. The key variable being the actual event.
If this tendency is our natural weakness, we must overcome it by using our natural strength: Thinking and testing our beliefs.
For example, I once worked with a handsome young man, who we will call, Nate, who was constantly told that he was "ugly" and "stupid" by his abusive father. When he first came to me, Nate was convinced that no woman would ever want to date him, let alone, marry him.
I responded to him by saying, maybe he's right maybe no woman would have him, but there is only one way to find out: test his beliefs in the real world. I told him that if he asked out all the women in the world and none of them want to date him, than his anxiety would be justified If at least one woman wanted to then it would not be.
He realized that this was absurd, but after a great deal of relentless pushing, Nate agreed to try to approach a few women over time.
Fourteen months later he was engaged. He is now happily married and currently expecting his third child.
Science/Empiricism = 1; Anxiety/Fear = 0
The takeaway is this: We may indeed be wired for anxiety, but that does not mean that anxiety is our fate. If we use the gift of our minds well, we can overcome our wiring.
If you read this and are feeling anxious or are buried under the weight of any false belief because of your wiring, do the hard thing: Test it out. The only thing you have to lose is your anxiety!
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