I sometimes feel like there are two versions of myself. Good Helen and Bad Helen. Good Helen is kind to others, appreciates beauty in the everyday, is immensely curious, hopeful, self-disciplined and likes to ponder the state of the world and how she can contribute to make it better. Bad Helen, on the other hand – is unmotivated, pessimistic, could give a crap about other people (especially strangers), and sometimes behaves like a cantankerous old man. When I wake up, I’m not sure which version of myself I’ll get that day, though I’m pretty aware these two voices are always hanging around somewhere. And depending on which voice I listen to, I make certain decisions and take certain actions, some of which benefit Future Helen, and some of which don’t.
Today is a hopeful kind of day. A ‘Good Helen’ day. I’m pondering about the state of humanity, and how I can best use my strengths, skills, passions to contribute to this world. Specifically, I’m pondering – what do I want to do after my PhD? When Good Helen is around, I want to use her focus and self-discipline towards a goal that is meaningful, not only to her but for humanity. (Idealistic, I know). Of course, given such meaningful goals, Bad Helen is bound to turn up too sometimes. When that happens, I’ll invite her to the party but I’ll probably make her sit in a corner and twiddle her thumbs. Yeah, she can hang out, but no, she can’t touch the music or talk to any important people.
In Kelly McGonigal‘s talk “The Willpower Instinct“, she relays that neuroscientists have long said, “though we only have one brain, we actually have two minds. We are completely different people depending on which mind if active or which systems of the brain are active“. Thus, the ‘ideal you’ competes with the ‘less-than-ideal you’. McGonigal presents some fascinating research on how simple factors such as how much sleep you get, what food you eat, your goals and expectations, or how critical versus compassionate you are to yourself, can significantly impact which version of ‘you’ shows up that day.
The same ideas are discussed in “The Evolving Self” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock. Csikszentmihalyi states that human beings evolved from “earlier mammalian roles such as a tiny shrew who kept stealing dinosaur eggs ~250 million years ago, to the homo sapiens today who started walking the African plains about four million years ago. […] We now know that 94% of our genetic material overlaps with the chimpanzees, where we have evolved to have “a thin overlay of tissue stretched over a solid reptilian brain”. While our reptilian brain controls our body’s vital functions (heart rate, breathing, body temperature) along with the limbic brain (emotions, value judgements), what about that “thin overlay of tissue”? According to David Rock, that’s our thinking brain – responsible for our “conscious interactions with the world“. This part (called the “prefrontal cortex”) was the last major brain region to develop during human evolutionary history, occupying a mere 4-5% of the volume of the rest of the brain. Yet, it is the prefrontal cortex that takes on the role of “self-reflective consciousness”, an achievement unique to our species [Csikszentmihalyi].
As Csikszentmihalyi writes, humans are “thinking beings“, who in our consciousness, can “reflect the immensity of the universe“.
So there you have it. [Good You vs. Bad You] == [Ideal You vs. Less-than-ideal-You] == [Instinctual reptilian brain vs. Evolved prefrontal cortex]. So the question is, what will we do with this information? As Csikszentmihalyi states, “at this point in our history, it should be possible for an individual to build a self that is not simply the outcome of biological drives and cultural habits, but a conscious, personal creation. [That self] will enjoy life in all its forms, and gradually become aware of its kinship with the rest of humanity, and with life as a whole.”
On the other hand, as Csikszentmihalyi later states, “Birds and lemmings cannot do much damage expect to themselves, whereas we can destroy the entire matrix of life on the planet. […] We still have an awfully long way to go before we can overcome what is innate in our behaviour”. As the human presence becomes ever more central in the natural world, “we realize that being at the cutting edge of evolution on this planet means we can either direct our life energy toward achieving growth and harmony, or waste the potentials we have inherited, adding to the sway of chaos and destruction” [Csikszentmihalyi]. He poignantly asks, “Will our race go out, either with a bang or a whimper, because we can’t figure out what life is all about?”
I don’t know. I have no idea where humankind will be in 50, 100, 200, 500 years. While I can’t control the state of humanity, I can certainly grow myself to be an ever-evolving conscious human being, relying increasingly upon my pre-frontal cortex rather than my reflexive limbic system to be more mindful, make better decisions, and reach beyond my tiny circle of empathy to a larger global scale.
As author John E. Lewis writes:
“If not us, then who?
If not now, then when?”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 1994. The Evolving Self: Psychology for the Third Millennium
David Rock. 2009. Your Brain At Work.