The Wisdom Page 



From Copthorne Macdonald's book MATTERS of CONSEQUENCE, pp.156-57:

Another feature of our evolutionary legacy is that we are unaware of how we make decisions. We're under the illusion that some "I," some core of personhood, somehow knows and decides. In actuality, decision-making is a largely unconscious process in which a constantly shifting hierarchy of internalized values interacts with a constantly shifting set of perceived circumstances and retrieved memories. Some values, such as survival and reproduction, are hardwired. Other values, and their position in the value hierarchy, are the products of life experience and the influences we have been exposed to. At any given moment, our decisions are made by the combined action of:

1. The brain-mind process currently in charge

2. The hierarchy of value priorities that exists at that moment

3. The perceived nature of the situation calling for a decision

4. Memories of similar or related situations

Regarding item one, above, there are three distinct brain-mind processes, each having its own hierarchy of values:

The instinctive/reactive process: Located in the earliest parts of our brain to evolve; the structures of the brain stem and limbic system and their change-resistant programming

The intellectual process: Typically centered in the left hemisphere of the neocortex

The intuitive process: Less clearly understood, but generally associated with the right, nonverbal hemisphere

These processes and their values work together to make our decisions and to control our behavior in the same way a computer's hardware and software work together to make the computer's decisions and to control its outputs. We can look at the three brain-mind processes as the hardware of our behavioral control system. And the internalized values that each process utilizes constitute a key part of the software.

While each of us has many values, individual values differ in their power to influence our decisions. 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 the intuitive process may come preprogrammed with certain ethical values-the Golden Rule, the incest taboo, and other values of conscience, for example. 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.

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 about 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.