What do I mean when I write about “mind challenges”?  Here are some ways our minds work differently than we think.  This gives some idea of what we’re up against, and I plan to explore many of these challenges on this blog.

I am not going to provide an exhaustive list here, but I want you to understand what I mean when I write that we face a multitude of mind challenges:

1.  Most thought is subconscious.  As Tor Norretranders explains at length in his brilliant book, The User Illusion, each instant we process dramatically more information than our consciousness is aware of.  As he puts it,

The fact is that every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second-at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits in order to arrive at the special state known as consciousness. But in itself, consciousness has very little to do with information. Consciousness involves information that is not present; information that has disappeared along the way.

Tor Norretranders, The User Illusion at 125 (1991).  Just think of that — what we are consciously aware of, each moment, is the very tip of an enormous mountain of data that has been collected, processed, discarded, or acted upon just prior to conscious thought.  (Among other things, this leads to the creepy fact that consciousness lags behind experience:  we actually don’t consciously perceive what is happening now, but only what was happening about a half-second ago.  Furthermore, this means that what we call “I” – the part of us that is conscious – has access to dramatically less information than the “Me” that gathered and processed most of it.)

2.  Our “rationality” is imperfect.  Self-justification warps our perceptions, decisions, and memories.  We exhibit and act upon prejudices and biases.  We tend to seek confirmation of our biases and preferences even when we try to seek additional, nonbiased information.

3.  Our memories do not function like solid-state, error-resistant input, output devices.  We don’t remember things “as they were,” and we don’t recall them “as they were stored.”  Instead, we interpret what we experience. Then we store an encapsulation of that interpretation, inevitably tinged by the emotions we were experiencing at the time we committed the experience to memory.  Later, we retrieve the encapsulation, this time tinging it with the emotions of the moment of retrieval. (Based in part on the way we process memory, we also have problems predicting the future.)

4.  We deal much more poorly with risk and uncertainty than we think we do.

5.  Our fear response mechanism is designed to err in favor of false positives. Although this no doubt saved the species countless times (better to overreact to a garden hose than to under-react to a rattlesnake), it leads to some predictable, consequences, not all of which make us look entirely reasonable.

6.  We tend to fear failure in particular, because we really dislike feeling embarrassed or feeling like we have not lived up to our own expectations.

7.  We fall into ruts of mindlessness.

8. Many of us fall victim to the pressures of perfectionism.

As I mentioned in a previous post, these challenges do not mean that all is lost.  Far from it.  The human brain is by far the finest computer we know.  We have a right to be proud of our out-sized foreheads.  But we should learn how the mind works, including how it occasionally follows predictable paths toward error and suboptimal thought.