We make choices every second of our lives. Choices about what we eat, how we think and feel, whether we notice things around us or focus on ourselves. And the choices will vary depending on our needs in these moments.
I’ve come to realize that all decisions we make in interacting with each other and with ourselves can be boiled down to two options: we can bare our souls or bare our teeth. Obviously, different circumstances call for different decisions.
Choices are a beautiful thing. One of the most distinctly human things about us.
Sure, other animals have to make choices, but would you say that other animals have free will? I see free will as one of the greatest gifts that humanity has been given. The problem with choices is that they take energy to make, and making conscious choices takes even more energy.
Our brains only have so much energy. I believe that because energy is an issue, we have systems in our brains that help us conserve energy and help us cope with the overwhelming amount of information we get through our senses – all information that needs to be processed.
Unfortunately, when we are unaware of these systems, we end up losing out on fully engaging in this vital gift of free will.
Now seems like an odd time to bring up the octopus, but I’m thinking about that creature because it is the only invertebrate that has, from an evolutionary standpoint, developed intelligence completely independent of our development of intelligence.
What do I mean by intelligence? They can learn, they can problem solve, and they will change tactics depending on what is presented to them. When I learned that these creatures have figured out how to do these things completely independent of our evolutionary progress, it made me think about exactly what intelligence is, despite how we currently define it.
In a documentary I watched, it was presented that these creatures developed intelligence by engaging with the stimuli in their environment and responding. They make choices based on direct information and what they have learned from contact with similar stimuli in the past.
Sounds like us. Or at least, sounds like part of what we do. We’re different because we have social experiences from our pasts that have impacted the choices we are likely to make, which is impacted by our worldview that was formed at a mostly subconscious level.
An octopus doesn’t give a shit whether or not he was bullied while he was forming his worldview. Wait, does an octopus even have a perspective on life? An octopus doesn’t have experiences that make it more or less likely that he will feel confident in his ability to succeed in opening a mussel.
And to an octopus, food is food and an enemy is an enemy and competition is competition. In this way, life is probably pretty simple. I don’t think an octopus needs free will. But we do.
Back to our brains and the systems designed by our evolutionary process. Because our enemies and our competition can look just like our friends and our lovers, we have to process more than shapes, colors, scents and textures to determine what is what.
(There is an argument here to be made that this need is directly related to free will, which lends itself to my argument that free will is distinctly human.)
To accommodate for this free will, we have processes in our thinking that help us figure out lover from enemy. But those systems seem to be on an eternal loop if left unattended.
As coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, we have a process called thin-slicing, in which we use information gathered through one or two experiences and then use that impression to assess all future encounters with people that have been lumped into similar groups.
I think the purpose behind this is energy conservation.
Imagine having to assess each new person or situation individually without any previous information to go on. Most of us have to do this several times a day. If we didn’t have a system in place to catalog experiences and then build on those initial assessments, we’d be fucking exhausted before noon each day.
But what if our initial impression was wrong? Or, less up for debate, what if our original impression does not extend to every single person wearing the same uniform or playing the same role?
In feelings, there is no right or wrong. If the mailman kicked you in the knee and walked away laughing, you’d probably feel hurt and leery of interacting with mailmen in the future.
And years later, because of the nature of our brain systems, what we recall when approaching another mailman is our feelings, our impression of the situation, not a play-by-play of everything that happened.
In essence, without a conscious awareness of how these systems work, we are at the mercy of whatever happened to us in the past.
This works for very basic things like slicing your hand open with a chef knife or sticking your finger in an outlet. We don’t need to remember what lead up to that impulse to stick our finger in the socket, or what prior experiences that chef knife had with fingers to know that we want to avoid either in the future.
In this era of go, go, go, many wake up in an energy deficit. We spend our energy based on how we’ve learned to spend our energy.
We spend our energy without conscious awareness of what will restore our personal energy and what will deplete it. We get stuck in routines and patterns without any idea, never mind the extra energy to resolve, how to break free. We live day-to-day getting by.
When we can master our energy flow (the input and output), when we can find a harmony that leaves us running at full capacity, we can choose to spend more energy assessing people and situations in the moment instead of relying on the antiquated systems in our brains. That is what I call true freedom!
We limit our choices by unconsciously spending our energy.
And limited choices have a great impact on our ability to fully exercise our gift of free will. I believe that our lack of freedom has nothing to do with any oppressive system or situation.
True freedom depends on the individual, on what we choose to think and believe, how we choose to act.
And I personally believe that once we have the proper energy to actively participate in our gift of free will on a moment to moment basis, we will be a more peaceful species.
Because I believe that in those spaces, we will find more opportunities to bare our souls instead of our teeth.