Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Only Way To Learn To Make Decisions Is Practice

My dog was the first to spy the two rabbits. They were grazing on something tasty in my neighbor's lawn. They seemed at peace until we got close, then suddenly dashed into the shrubbery. The dog wanted to go after them, but I held the leash tightly and we walked on by. When I looked back over my shoulder, the rabbits were back out there on the lawn, munching away.

Most animals experience what we call fear. It's the basic instinctual emotion that tells them to either run, hide, or be prepared to fight. When the cause for fear is removed, say the predator has prowled off after less well-hidden prey, the fear goes away as well. At least that's what animal behaviorists tell us.

There is an assumption in scientific circles that when early Homo sapiens appeared some 300,000 years ago, we shared this instinctive fear response with other species, responding in more or less the same way as other animals to objects of fear. Being afraid was essential to our survival, and that ancient feeling of fear is still with us, even if we don't always respond by dashing into shrubbery, although we might feel like it.

Humans experience fear as other animals do, but over the course of our continued evolution as a species, our brains have evolved the capacity to use our conscious judgement to override the fight-or-flight instinct, replacing it with reasoning (which is not the same as saying "logic"). Some of us, for instance, have a deathly fear of dogs just as those rabbits do. When we spy them, our hearts beat harder, we might break into a sweat, our muscles tense up, but our reasoning tells us that the dog is on a leash, it isn't behaving aggressively, and so we override our urge to run away in the face of this feeling of fear.

Here's the thing: With those rabbits, the feeling of fear disappeared once the cause of their fear (my dog) was removed -- they were back on that lawn the moment the coast was clear. But for humans, the feeling of fear remains in our uniquely conscious minds long after the danger has passed. We retain a memory, not necessarily of the danger, but of the fear. It stays with us as anxiety. We stew on it. We begin to worry that there will be a dog around the next corner and the next. Our minds race through all the possible dangers: the next dog will slip its collar and it will "get" me; there will be a rabid stray around the corner; a malicious owner will actively sic their trained throat-dog on us. Our reasoning might tell us that none of these things are likely to happen, but for many of us, that does nothing to quell the unresolvable feeling of fear. 

Fear is not the only animal instinct that our conscious minds struggle with. The feeling of sadness we feel over some sort of loss is turned into depression. Feelings about mistakes are turned into guilt. Our ability to recognize patterns and predict results turns to worry. Indeed, many of the ailments and tribulations of modern life can be blamed on the fact that we've evolved conscious minds. Instead of simply responding to the dictates of our instincts in order to survive and procreate, we now must learn to use reasoning to make decisions about everything. And decision-making is stressful.

Making our own decisions is perhaps the single most important thing we must learn, because we can no longer count on our instincts. And the only way to learn this is through practice. The more experience we have with decision-making, the better we get at it. This is why we say that making mistakes, the result of poorly reasoned decisions, is so important, especially for young children. We must learn to apply past experiences to new ones by tapping into our memories. We must learn to apply our ability to anticipate the future based on our experiences. And, hardest of all for many of us, we must learn to live with our emotions on our shoulder because they alone are no longer the best guide to behavior.

There are those who say that is this, the evolution of the conscious mind, is the fall from grace found in so many creation myths.

Unfortunately, school for most children is about adults making all their decisions for them. They don't have to decide such basic things as where they will go, when they are to eat or defecate, what they are to know, and how they are to come to know it. They are taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that important decisions, those that cause the most stress, are best left up to the grown-ups. And then, after decades of having learned to depend on others for the stressful project of decision-making, we expect these children to suddenly start making their own decisions about nothing less than "the rest of their lives." 

We take consciousness so much for granted that we often don't recognize that it is the first tool that we must learn to use. A childhood full of self-directed play is how humans are meant to learn to use the magnificent blessing, and horrible curse, of consciousness. When we play in a safe enough environment, we practice applying what we already know about the world to reason and make decisions. The inevitable mistakes are how we hone this tool. Asking and answering our own questions, trail-and-error science, applying memories, and learning to recognize patterns all emerge from our play, and are essential because the more conscious we become, the less reasonable it becomes to dash into shrubbery at every fright.

Children with playful childhoods tend to grow into adults who know themselves, who are self-motivated, and who are better able to handle their inevitable bouts with anxiety, depression, and the other illnesses of a conscious mind. 

What we tend to forget is that the human mind continues to evolve. Consciousness itself is evolving, just as it has evolved over the past 300,000 years. We might dream of a return to the garden, that place where we dashed into the shrubbery when something frightened us, then returned calmly to the lawn when that frightful thing moved on. But we are now forever outcasts from the Eden of instinct, stuck instead with the stress of making our own decisions about every damned thing. 

The only way to learn to live with the irrepressible stress of decision-making is practice. 

And the best practice is play.


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