Friday, February 3, 2012


It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future", said Yogi Berra (or Neils Bohr or Mark Twain depending on the source). Ask the experts. Learning from the Heart is a book written by Daniel Gottlieb who suffered a spinal cord injury that left him quadriplegic at the age of thirty-three. He writes:
"People look at me and imagine themselves in my position and feel fear. I certainly did that when I was younger. Because of my disability, I have already experienced what most people will as they age. I consider myself very lucky as I listen to my middle-aged fellow humans worry about their losses. All the stuff they fret about now, I already have endured, so I don't have to be concerned. That frees my mind up to worry about all sorts of other things!"
He was right when he said that you can't predict your future very well. If someone had told me before my stroke that I will be a quadriplegic , will not be able to speak, but will not go mad, will read a lot of astronomy and evolution and find them interesting, become more rational, I would have said they were nuts. But that is precisely what has happened.

Of course, I would first have felt a stab of fear at the thought of being locked-in. I would never have thought that instead of keeping on lamenting, I would have preferred to live in the moment. Jaya also never imagined that she would have been able to deal successfully with all the challenges since my stroke. Many people who have known her since childhood have been surprised by her resilience. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert says:
Able-bodied people are willing to pay far more to avoid becoming disabled than disabled people are willing to pay to become able-bodied again because able-bodied people under-estimate how happy disabled people are. As one group of researchers noted, “chronically ill and disabled patients generally rate the value of their lives in a given health state more highly than do hypothetical patients [who are] imagining themselves to be in such states.” Indeed, healthy people imagine that eighty-three states of illness would be “worse than death,” and yet, people who are actually in those states rarely taken their own lives.
How we interpret ambiguous stimuli depend on factors like context, frequency, recency, etc. The biggest sources of exploitable ambiguities are the varied experiences in life. As soon as an imagined experience becomes an actual experience, the brain looks for ways to interpret it in a way that allows us to appreciate it. As Gilbert says:
Consumers evaluate kitchen appliances positively after they buy them, job seekers evaluate jobs more positively after they accept them, and high school students evaluate colleges more positively after they get into them. Racetrack gamblers evaluate their horses more positively when they are leaving the betting window than when they are approaching it, and voters evaluate their candidates more positively when they are exiting the voting booth than when they are entering it. A toaster, a firm, a university, a horse, and a senator are all just fine and dandy, but when they become our toaster, firm, university, horse, and senator they are instantly finer and dandier.
Although our brains are very good at putting a positive spin on things, it doesn't mean that we have a Panglossian view of every experiences. Rather, we have a psychological immune system that defends our minds against unhappiness, functioning in a similar way to the physical immune system.
... when we face the pain of rejection, loss, misfortune, and failure, the psychological immune system must not defend us too well (“I’m perfect and everyone is against me”) and must not fail to defend us well enough (“I’m a loser and I ought to be dead”). A healthy psychological immune system strikes a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it (“Yeah, that was a lousy performance and I feel crummy about it, but I’ve got confidence to give it a second shot”). We need to be defended – not defenceless or defensive - and thus our minds naturally look for the best view of things while simultaneously insisting that those views stick reasonably closely to the facts.
When we are stuck with an experience and cannot change it, we begin to change our views of the experience. In Gilbert's words - "We just can't make the best of a fate until it is inescapably, inevitably, and irrevocably ours." There is more but for that you will have to read the book. Edge once asked many public personalities to give their favourite equation and Gilbert gave this equation for why it is so hard to predict how we will feel in the future.

PS: In his blog, Gilbert gives a psychologist's take on The Vagaries of Religious Experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment