We do not use the problem solving executive skills in the prefrontal cortex properly.
In learning to use our physical bodies we all tend to learn the same physical skills. There are exceptions like acrobats and sports-persons who are super fit, but for the majority of us we all use our physical bodies in much the same way. Emotions are more variable, but there are a standard set of emotions and we all experience similar type of emotions in similar circumstances. In contrast, how each of us “thinks” varies greatly. There is a misconception that humans are rational beings. The vast majority of us do not think or act at all rationally most of the time, particularly with the bigger decisions in life. The greater the importance of the decision we are making, the less rationally we are likely to think. Decisions like who we marry, where we should buy a house, what type of job we should train for – these that have lifelong consequences tend to be made by our emotions rather than cool, intellectual consideration.
During the evolution of the human race, presumably as the conscious brain was still developing, heuristics emerged which are short-cuts to the decision-making process. Emotions and gut-feelings work very quickly compared to the mental processing of facts and weighing up alternatives. In the past, when we heard rustling in the trees on a dark night the availability heuristic told us that this could signal that a lion had entered the camp and was devouring one of our comrades. So instead of thinking about what the noise meant and what we should do, the mental availability heuristic clicked in and directed us to immediately climb the nearest tree. We acted quickly with minimal thinking based on a past experience with lions in the camp. It may have been wrong, but it was better to climb the tree a dozen times in error and still be alive, than to sit around or investigate to be sure that it was a lion by which time it was too late to escape. These heuristics undoubtedly saved the lives of our ancestors on countless occasions in the past, but we have inherited these heuristics and they aren’t always appropriate in modern life where we are not constantly in physical danger. There is now much less need for quick mental decision making, and if we are to progress spiritually we need to cultivate awareness and exercise our executive brain functions. These heuristic short-cuts bypass thinking in the executive brain. Many heuristics and cognitive biases have been identified and described, and some of the more common ones are listed below:
- Availability heuristic – being influenced by information that is most recently in memory.
- Representativeness heuristic – making judgement based on probabilities.
- Anchoring and adjustment – relying on the first piece of information offered.
- Confirmation bias – searching for an answer based on preconceptions.
These links have some good discussion on the judgemental errors we make based on common biases:
The point is that despite having great thinking apparatus in our pre-frontal cortex, most of the time we don’t use it properly. We use a short-cut instead; not because we are in danger, but because we have become mentally lazy. We don’t think rationally, and this leads to errors in judgement. We all have the necessary thinking apparatus in our heads, but few of us use it effectively.