THE BLOG
09/29/2016 10:19 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2017

The Necessity And Danger Of The Untrained Mind

The Chinese Buddhist school called Tiantai teaches that practitioners should open the provisional to reveal the real, that we need both appearance and a deeper reality to work an essential process of uncovering. Without the tenuous, taken-for-granted-ness of appearances, there can be no reality, and thus we must view provisional features in a new light to understand what they really are.

There are times when we need the groundedness of the apparent to understand something more abstruse, like how meditation instructors can lead us through a ritualized, tangible practice that leaves the mind much more open than before. Ironically, over time, such openness comes to serve as a new baseline, the new ground from which we emerge.

Beyond the languorous plumes of philosophy and the silent succor of meditation, it can be quite rewarding to understand how what is seemingly attractive can act as a springboard to a greater understanding.

Our culture is established without an understanding of this. We are very much an either/or society and not a both/and society. We can lean too much on rapid assessments of situations without thinking them through, or contrariwise, we can over-think things and be bereft of all feeling.

On the one hand, one thinks of Daniel Kahneman's efforts in his magnum opus 'Thinking Fast and Slow,' about the two systems our brains have for coming to logical conclusions and the various ways we can trip ourselves up by not correctly distinguishing between them. By tending to the ways we can veer from the path of rationality, we can assure that most of our decisions will not be hasty. On the other hand, as professor Edward Slingerland writes in his book 'Trying Not to Try,' we must base our moral decisions on the fast side of our cognition, using our intuition to guide us. Morality based on the slow system can often drag out our response until it is useless.

Having only an untrained mind or a stifling rigidity in our minds can lead to dangerous outcomes. Maintaining a balance is the best way to go. In fact, when our minds are more integrated, we may discover what others can't when relying too much on the fast system or slow system. In researching schizophrenia while applying to graduate schools, I discovered that research shows schizophrenia is more likely to develop in people who over-utilize the cognitive control network in our brains, which compensates for this preponderance of control by activating the parts of the brain that don't operate on the cognitive control network, causing hallucinations and out-of-control emotions. In 2014, scientists reported that a network beyond conscious control, the default mode network, has been implicated in schizophrenia.

Oddly, if we're looking for examples of a well-integrated mind, we can see this balance hiding in unexpected places. Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman said that great science starts out by betting on the ignorance of experts, whose over-reliance on hard cognition can blind them to insight. Autopsies on Einstein's brain found that one distinguishing mark in his neural networks was an integration between the left and right hemispheres of his brain.

Anyone watching the presidential debates on Monday saw the untrained mind of Republican candidate Donald Trump face off against the well-integrated mind of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who was able to mix humor and organized policy proposals into her responses to the capricious and untamed Trump. Clearly, what attracts so many followers to Trump is his off-the-cuff persona. But this alone isn't enough; it is an example of an untrained mind alone. Tina Fey has said that good humor--like good leadership--relies on well-informed cognition with an ability to think on one's feet. In a New Yorker profile, she said, "When hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir." Relying on either thinking or action too much either bogs us down or makes us impulsive.

To return to Eastern wisdom, in the Tao Te Ching, Laozi writes, "Ruling a large state is like cooking a small fish." One has to be careful, wise and know how to delicately appeal to the tastes of the people. Trump can do none of this. And if we open the provisional to reveal the real when it comes to this election, we see the horrors of the untrained mind alone. Only together with reason can the untrained mind bloom.