Happiness – A Theory: On Being Open

Our brains appear wired to adopt a belief about our milieu, consecrate it, then bar the door to our consciousness against any competing belief. If a different belief gets past our mental bouncer, the result is conflict, sometimes labeled cognitive dissonance. This process should be familiar to most of us, yet how likely is it to reflect some objective quality of our universe? The transcendent achievements of our brains help to blind us to their concomitant evolved limitations. There appears to be little circuitry in the brain encouraging it to adopt a critical posture towards itself.

There is, so to speak, a pantry full of ingredients, and a universe of possible recipes, tucked into this convoluted organ and the larger organism it serves. Much as a solitary person may infrequently feel the urge to cook, however, we seem inclined to ignore the culinary opportunities.

Perhaps in questioning the integrity of our thinking, we may take a seat at one of life’s great feasts. If we cultivate within ourselves the capacity to hold two competing beliefs, simultaneously, we may proceed from there to a perhaps unlimited gathering of data and ideas within us, resisting the persistent impulse to clear the room of intruders. The very moment we feel the zing of eureka — that we have figured something out, and we would banish the inconsistent data and perceptions — we may do well to resist this deportation. The process of keeping our minds open – familiar to our tongues but rarely to our hearts – may require an ease with dissonance. Our brains appear to crave certainty, solidity. The question arises: can we rewire our reward circuitry to appreciate uncertainty, fluidity? What if your enemy can teach you something that would change your life? What if you wander down an aisle in the bookstore and select something you might never see? Might there be an idea out there to complement your treasured hypotheses, but your brain’s bouncer leaves it shivering on the sidewalk?

Recent neuroscience is littered with accounts of compensatory perceptual achievements in the face of lost functionality. See, for instance, My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor. It stands to reason that our neuroplastic brain can adapt to see things, including ideas about our milieu, in new ways. Is there a meditation that would assist our brain to get out of its own way? Knowledge is knowing that we cannot know, said Emerson. In that simple phrase may lie a mantra which, if we utter it daily, may help us not only to keep our minds open, but to find doing so a pleasure.

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