Flaws in Human Mentality

A few thoughts on the subject by Copthorne Macdonald

Human decisions are made by a partly conscious but largely unconscious process.  Information entering the brain from the senses, and information stored in memory, interact with that person’s deeply held beliefs and values.  Computer data processing is a useful analogy.  The evolution-designed human brain is the hardware.  The person’s internalized values and beliefs are the program.  The person’s senses and memories provide the information that is processed.  The result of that processing is behavior — a decision to do this, that, or perhaps nothing.  The details are extremely complex and not completely understood, but the diagram below conveys the basic idea.

From this we can see that there are several places where things can go wrong: brain structure and functioning, the values, the beliefs, one’s memories, and the incoming sensory information. Let us begin with the brain.

Problems Rooted in Brain Design

The human brain actually consists of three brains nested within each other, each having been developed during a different evolutionary period.

The innermost brain, sometimes called the brain stem or the reptilian brain, is located at the top of the spinal column and is the primitive core of the human brain. Designed by evolution to guide the behavior of reptiles, it is the most ancient of the three. It consists of the medulla oblongata, the pons, and the reticular formation. In humans, it controls basic bodily functions, such as heartbeat, breathing, swallowing, sneezing, and blood pressure. During sleep, the reticular formation monitors sensory data and arouses the rest of the brain when it detects something it deems dangerous such as an unfamiliar noise or skin sensation.

The limbic system (consisting of thalamus, fornix, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and amygdala) is an add-on brain that evolved to help mammals survive and reproduce. Wrapped around the brain stem, it is the seat of human emotions — strong reactive emotions, such as fear, lust, anger, and jealousy, as well as subtler emotions, such as maternal feelings and those that define moods. The limbic system also plays a major role in memory.

Mammals also have a third brain: a neocortex, located atop and around the limbic system. Relative to body size, cats have a small cortex, chimpanzees have one of medium size, and humans have a very large one. The human neocortex is the thinking brain, the seat of many higher-level functions, such as speech, planning, decision-making, visualization, and the intellectual control of a person’s emotional life. The three nested brains are interconnected in complex ways, and recent neurological and psychological research has revealed much about how the whole integrated system works.

This evolution designed brain/mind system creates for each person a mental model of reality that contains some serious distortions and outright lies. In the difficult circumstances of primitive living, some of these lies actually helped people to survive. In present circumstances, however, they often cause serious problems. 

Reactive Emotions — Reactive emotions and emotion-driven actions helped early humans to survive and reproduce in primitive circumstances. Today, however, strong human emotions distort a person’s sense of relative importance and often lead to inappropriate behavior.  It works like this:

The thalamus acts as a relay station for raw sensory input data. It sends this data both to the neocortex for detailed (but relatively slow) processing and directly to the amygdala, where it is evaluated in a crude but more immediate way. The amygdala monitors all the sensory data passing through the thalamus for threats to the person.  If its hardwired programming detects a danger of some sort, it puts the brain in crisis mode.

Some of these crisis messages cause physical things to happen, such as the release of fight-or-flight hormones, the tightening of muscles, and the release of brain chemicals that heighten alertness. At the same time, a feeling is presented to consciousness — say, of fear, anger, hatred, greed, or jealousy — as determined by the amygdala’s rough-and-ready analysis of the sensory data. Sometimes, a powerful emotion leads to immediate action. The person acts before the more comprehensive and sophisticated, but slower, cortical evaluation process has been completed. At times, this kind of immediate, reactive behavior might save an endangered life; at other times, it results in great harm and profound regret. A mark of emotional intelligence, development, and maturity is the ability to delay acting until the cooled–out second opinion from the frontal lobes of the cortex has reached consciousness. Unfortunately, some people treat emotions as action imperatives and react on impulse in situation after situation. They have not learned that emotional feelings are simply messages from the limbic brain to the conscious mind, to be ignored or acted upon as other brain processes (intellect and intuition) dictate.

Fear, in particular, is highly controlling and difficult to deal with. It was a helpful motivator when vision detected an approaching tiger, and in that situation immediate action made perfect sense. But in today’s very different world, the experience of fear often leads to inappropriate behavior — or immobilizes people, preventing appropriate action. Unfortunately, human beings are not good at assessing risk. The deaths of 3000 people in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 triggered an immobilizing wave of fear that swept across America.  The fact that a dozen times that many deaths occur each year in automobile accidents does not. That said, humans are fear-prone beings, and fear is often used as a mechanism of control.  The media carry stories that create fear, and the size of their audience increases. Political regimes exaggerate risk, demonize an enemy, and use other fear-provoking techniques to get people to agree with the regime’s program of action.  The emotional vulnerability of human beings — a combination of fear, confusion, and the hope of relief from fear — allowed the George W. Bush administration to implement an agenda that greatly increased Executive power, reduced civil liberties, and killed many more civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq than were killed in the September 11 attacks.

Personhood and Identity — We have also been misled about personhood and identity.

We have a primal sense of existing, a self-sense, an I AM feeling. And almost all of us associate that feeling with body and mind contents. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The human brain evolved during an extended period when our ancestors relied on hunting and gathering for survival. When under threat in primitive circumstances, the illusion of being an independent person increased the likelihood of personal and species survival. So it made evolutionary sense to consider oneself an independent person.  In reality, however, humans are not separate independent beings; they are nodes of universal process.

They utilize the sun’s energy, exchange gases via the atmosphere, take in nutritious chemicals, produce wastes, and are linked in numerous ways to other beings and systems.

More fundamental still, persons are simply informational modulations of the primal carrier: Being, Spirit, Energy-Awareness.

Think of the ocean and its waves. Waves are ocean's informational modulations, having form and activity. Yet from another perspective, waves are simply ocean. Like the ocean and its waves, humanity — and all of existence — is the primal ONE in countless forms. Unfortunately, human reliance on vision constantly reinforces the illusion of separateness. People appear to be isolated entities. But they are not.

One side effect of our distorted sense of identity is the limited sphere of concern that we all start out with, and that we transcend only with difficulty.

Our built-in tendency is to be concerned primarily about our own immediate situation — ourselves, our family, our friends — those physically close to us, and close in relationship. Yet the expansion of concern about the well-being of others is possible, and is a characteristic of developing wisdom.

The same is also true about the extension of concern in the realm of time.

We tend to be concerned about the near term — about having things go well now and in the immediate future. Again, concern about well-being in the more distant future is possible, and it develops as one grows in wisdom.

Mental Blind Spots — Human beings lie to themselves in a variety of ways.  Psychologists use the terms denial, rationalization, projection, and repression to identify various forms of the phenomenon.  Whatever the mechanism, the result is a mental blind spot.  The individual fails to see some truth about him or her self.  Similarly, human cultures and entire nation-states have blind spots concerning historical realities and current practices that they would rather not acknowledge.

Other Distortions of Reality

  • People find it difficult to internalize the reality of their own eventual death.

  • They have difficulty conceptualizing magnitudes that are vastly different from those they deal with in everyday life. They can’t intuitively grasp the very large or the very small.

  • They notice sudden changes, but not gradual changes.

  • Humans tend to oversimplify causation. They pick out some dominant element in a situation and call it “The Cause,” when in fact there are myriad necessary elements — an entire causal matrix — with roots that go back to the origin of the universe.

Belief and Value Problems

Each human’s inner life and outer behavior is the joint product of nature and nurture: genes on the one hand and life experience on the other. Each person arrives on Earth with a set of genetically determined potentials, some of which are common to all and some of which differ from person to person. All babies drink, cry, sleep, and wet their diapers. But some babies sleep their first month away while others cry it away. Some startle easily; some don’t. Some are exceptionally alert and attentive; others are less so. Some have a generally rejecting attitude, others a generally accepting one. In addition to these built–in attitudes and tendencies, each baby is born with a very wide range of undeveloped potentials. These include intellectual potentials, physical potentials, musical potentials, artistic potentials, potentials for generosity and caring, potentials for selfishness and mean-spiritedness, etc.

On the nurture side, it is society’s job to take this raw malleable humanness, this watchful, willful, bundle of potentials, and develop some of them into functioning actualities. If one set of potentials gets developed, you get one kind of person and one expression of “human nature.” When another set develops, you get a different person and a different human nature. It is the matrix of influences in each person’s life that determines which innate potentials develop into actualities and which do not.

These influences arise from involvement with parenting, schooling, the legal system, religion, employment, organizations, the electronic and print media, and people in general.  Societies need individuals who accept the overall goals, values, and ethical standards of their society and are willing to contribute to the well-being of the society’s major institutions.  This is accomplished by influencing people to develop a compatible set of beliefs and values.

Internalized beliefs are deeply-held assumptions about what is true and real.  Some beliefs reflect objective reality; others do not.  But true or false, beliefs play a key role in directing behavior.  Each person has a great many beliefs, and these come together as a pattern of beliefs about the world, a picture of how things are, a personal worldview.  Sometimes it is a single belief that is involved in making a decision.  Often it is a cluster of beliefs extracted from that worldview.

Internalized values are the roots of human goals and preferences.  They have to do with the way a person would like things to be.  Each human has many values, and they sometimes conflict.  Depending on circumstances, one value will take priority over another. Eating supper at 6:00 P.M. may be one of your values, but it is not apt to be the controlling value if your house happens to be on fire at that hour. Values are arranged in a constantly shifting hierarchy of priority. People always do what they think is best, and that "best" is determined by how their hierarchy of internalized values interacts with the brain/mind's assessment of past, present, and anticipated future circumstances.

Some values, such as bodily survival, territoriality, and sexual reproduction, appear to be hardwired into the instinctive/reactive process. And some part of the brain appears to come preprogrammed with certain ethical values such as the Golden Rule, the incest taboo, and other values of conscience. But the neocortex-based intellectual and intuitive processes use a hierarchy of learned, internalized, inherently changeable values to evaluate situations, make decisions, and initiate behaviors. One or more of these brain processes, together with its hierarchy of values, is always in charge of our lives.

Roger Sperry commented on this situation and some of its broader implications:

Human values, in addition to their commonly recognized significance from a personal, religious, or philosophic standpoint, can also be viewed objectively as universal determinants in all human decision making. All decisions boil down to a choice among alternatives of what is most valued, for whatever reasons, and are determined by the particular value system that prevails. Human value priorities, viewed thus in objective control-system theory, stand out as the most strategically powerful causal control now shaping world events. More than any other causal system with which science now concerns itself, it is variables in human value systems that will determine the future.1

If we don't like the values we have internalized to date or the particular mental process that is calling the shots, then we must change things. By being selective about the influences we expose ourselves to and the mental habits we develop, we can influence the mix and relative priority of our internalized values — as well as which of the three brain-mind processes is in control. The ancient brain structures may be pretty much hardwired, but the neocortex is not. Positive influences lead to positive mind habits. This, in turn, results in the brain's vast network of neural connections rearranging themselves in ways that allow us to minimize and transcend those mental flaws. I call the process wisdom development, and to explore this further you might want to visit The Wisdom Page website at www.wisdompage.com. Also of possible interest is the 22-minute illustrated video that covers the same territory as this essay.


1. Sperry, R.W. "Bridging science and values: A unifying view of mind and brain." American Psychologist: April, 1977, p. 237.