The Brain Knows More than it can Handle

Note that this post is in the musings category; neither advocacy nor nostalgia is present. Rather, it is the brain’s incapacity to integrate percentages with empirical reality that has always intrigued the mariner. He was reminded of this recently when the mariner and his wife sent a birthday card to our son advising him that every year that passes, he grows closer to the mariner’s age.

Empirically, this is not true – our ages remain the same number of years apart in arithmetic terms. However, convert the difference to a percentage and one can make the case that our ages are converging.

Hypothetically, let’s say the mariner’s son was born when the mariner was 20 years old. On the son’s 5th birthday, he is 20% as old as his father. On the son’s 10th birthday, the son is 33% as old as the mariner. On the son’s 40th birthday, he is 66% as old as his father. As a percentage, the son is growing old faster than his father!

Humans can understand percentage values only after their brains interpolate percentage values to an approximate empirical reality, that is, an absolute event. The mariner knew a person who believed that when the weather report said 30% chance of rain, it meant the person would receive 1/3 of all the rain that would fall – an absolute value.

This inability to rationalize probability in terms of absoluteness is what makes lotteries work. Simply say, “You gotta play to win,” And the brain thinks that if one plays, one wins. Never mind that as a probability, one may win once in 17 million tries. But even that is not guaranteed. One may win 17 million times or may never win at all or win any number in between. That’s the problem: probability is not empirically guaranteed. The brain is much more comfortable coping with the absoluteness of empirical reality.

The brain can override probability (percentages) very easily by replacing a percentage with one that is an unrelated empirical situation that has completely different probability. A common example is ignoring the probability of an automobile accident by responding to the empirical urge to answer a text on the cell phone. The odds that someone will be on the other end of the call are very high both empirically and statistically. The absoluteness of the texting seems more dependable than the absoluteness of having an accident. A fair trade off, wouldn’t you think?

The obvious conclusion is that the brain has difficulty evaluating percentages. The brain is much more comfortable comparing empirical relationships. True, over evolutionary time, the skill of evaluating empirical absoluteness is more useful, else, lions, tigers and panthers would have eaten all our ancestors while the ancestors calculate the probability of whether they actually will be eaten.

One may argue that the brain actually accepts percentages and alters empirical behavior. One can train oneself not to respond to the cell phone while driving. An intellectual victory but not an empirical one; a dog will accept heeling intellectually but, all things said empirically, would rather be running off doing what dogs like to do best – answer the cell phone.

Over the years, mariner has given countless presentations to managers, planners, project teams and others who must develop decisions that most graphically affect the empirical world but in the beginning are decisions based on percentages, statistics, base expectancy and gut feelings. Human society cannot live without probability. Still, probability is a foreign value until it is interpreted as an absolute event.

Think of all the things that face probability in your life – starting with the color of your eyes and hair and whether your middle finger is as long as your ring finger. What is the probability that you would meet the person you married? No judgment intended, what is the probability that you did not meet the person you should have married? How fortunate are you to have the job you have? You may never have had the chance for that job if you reacted to 30% of the rain that was going to fall on that fateful day.

The truth is, probability shapes our reality in every way – even to the fact that life would not exist without the moon. How fortunate we are that, against all probability, the pieces of Earth that formed the moon did not fly off into a scattered belt of asteroids – as percentages would have predicted. We are not conscious of the influence of probability because the brain does not notice probability until it is converted into an empirical event. What if you were told that the son’s age is 66% of his father’s age? Does that help with your understanding of the family relationship?

What is the probability that this post is important to the empirical circumstances of its readers? Probably not worth mentioning but the mariner had a good time writing it – a victory for empirical judgment in spite of probable value. Just don’t call him while he’s driving.

Ancient Mariner


A Blissful Place

Like many of you, the mariner feels a need to respond to greater tragedies in the world. However, there are two points to be made. First, he will solve not one great tragedy no matter how hard he tries. Second, No matter how much the mariner learns through personal education about a great tragedy, his knowledge inflames only his own soul.

A similar opinion is reflected in a few responses to posts. The mariner must agree with the general premise. True, he will not live long enough to see many great tragedies resolved – if they ever will be resolved. So find something pleasant to do until he dies.

However, a look backward through written history shows that tragedies have been overcome not by one or two powerful individuals but by hoards of people who took matters into their own hands. Discounting the contributions of science and technology, this has been the case most of the time. Further, no set of population has agreed to the last person that a given premise is absolute. Without elaborating, freedom marches could not have occurred with Martin Luther King alone. He had a few companions. Also note that both racism and “paid” slavery still abound. Still, the freedom movement made changes to American culture. One must, over the millennia, take one step at a time.

Occupy America and Tea Party movements are more evidence that it takes more than one person’s angst to change culture. To quote a great American phrase, “E Pluribus Unum.” It takes one hundred pennies to make a dollar. Consider yourself a penny – can’t make a dollar without you. To be more absolute about individual responsibility, be a citizen who votes – a power for change few citizens have had in history. 48 percent of eligible Americans do not vote. The mariner would recommend voting in caucuses and primaries as well. Further, when was the last time you shared your opinion with an elected representative?

The counterpoint is made. Yet, there is truth in the first paragraph. This modern age requires more than a millstone and corn to make breakfast. Although each of us is only one person, we as individuals are super-engaged in every level of local, national and global society. Our lifestyle is dependent on every level of local, national and global society. Our personal lives face daily confrontations that simpler times did not require. Further, in simpler times, tasks generally did not require much stress on the deeper machinations of our personalities.

In the United States, given a few exceptions for the wealthy and starving artists, having a job most of our life is an absolute requirement for survival. That means working steadily all day five days a week (a fairly recent limitation created by collective bargaining – but I digress). It means doing more than that if one needs to assure job security and lasting success. Virtually every job is stressful because time, not our own, is of the essence.

In the United States, children and parents and grandparents and cousins and friends disburse all over the world, leaving less of an envelope of unspoken comfort and protection. It is both blessing and curse in our American culture. As we have moved from an agricultural society to a post-industrial, technology driven society, a new festival has emerged – the family reunion. Used to be every day was a family reunion, though too much of a good thing can sometimes be too much. The mariner is reminded of a good friend he knew during the 1960’s. The friend said, “Never been more than 54 miles from home.” Queried about why, he said he never felt the need. He was an older farmer; he and his wife had four generations of family nearby.

So while we are more involved in our society than ever before, we tend to find less in the way of curative family and friend activities. In effect, were it not for a spouse, a great many individuals literally would live more than a day’s travel to a family member. Those without family or spouse emotionally have a harder life and tend to shape their lives in a way that guarantees curative time with friends and in solace.

The Western World is captivated by the noise and innovation of democratic capitalism. We tend to forget the healing aspects of religions that never experienced a Puritan-driven reformation, never heard of James Smith or John Maynard Keynes. One of my favorite anthropologists, Joseph Campbell often spoke of the need for each of us to have a blissful place. His definition of bliss was for religious purpose as well as emotional. Nevertheless, it takes training to sustain a blissful place. Perhaps that is why yoga and new age movements are growing in popularity – these movements reflect a need solved long ago in Hinduism and Buddhism – two religions that never faced western influence until the world grew too small. Still, as religions, they do not fare well in Western culture. Find solace in Pilates or Tai-Chi.

The mariner concedes we need solace. He also advocates that the world needs our constant attention because of human, chemical, planetary, and equality dynamics – but he digresses.

Ancient Mariner