Powerful strategies to combat the design flaws of the human brain that make life in the twenty-first century unreasonably difficult.
If other animals could study us the way we study them, they would be puzzled by our unique ability to inflict misery on ourselves. We expend a lot of energy replaying past anguish, anticipating future distress, and stewing in self-righteous anger. Other animals would call us out for being oddly paradoxical creatures who long to be happy but who are the source of their own suffering, We worry about things we have no control over. We complain about not being understood while casting a critical eye on others. We stubbornly defend our beliefs despite contradictory evidence. Complicating all of this is our struggle to adapt to a complex world that we created. who struggle to adapt to a confusing world that we ourselves created.
In our defence, we haven’t yet mastered our neuron-packed brains, whose incredible complexity evolved over millennia in a very different world than today’s. The result of this evolutionary journey? Five design features that often morph into design flaws in need of fixing.
Hard to Be Human corrals the best insights from psychology, neuroscience, physics, and philosophy to reveal powerful strategies for the five big battles we each face in the war with our misguided, misbehaving selves. Tapping into deeply personal stories to ground the concepts in real life, Cadsby reveals how we can overcome our design flaws to be smarter, happier, and better adapted to the complexities of life in the twenty-first century.
About the author
Ted Cadsby is a corporate director, consultant, and bestselling author. Ted led 18,000 employees as the executive vice president of Retail Distribution at CIBC. He also served as president and CEO of CIBC Securities Inc., chairman of CIBC Trust Corp., and chairman of CIBC Private Investment Counsel Inc. As a speaker on decision-making, team effectiveness, and leadership, Ted has been extensively interviewed by the national media. He lives in Toronto.
Excerpt: Hard to Be Human: Overcoming Our Five Cognitive Design Flaws (by (author) Ted Cadsby)
Other Animals Have It Easier
You and I are freaks of nature: the only surviving species in the most complex genus of the primate order in the mammalian class of animals. We Homo sapiens are a seven-million-year-old hominin experiment that actually began four billion years ago when the first living cells embarked on a trial-and-error path that dead-ended for our Neanderthal cousins and many other human species. We bumbled our way through various obstacle courses that the other humans failed to navigate, and here we are: rudimentary animals with an added layer of mental complexity, off-the-rack primates with souped-up brains. Although, in fairness, “souped-up” doesn’t do our grey matter justice.
An elephant’s brain is three times as large and has three times as many neurons (257 billion versus our 86 billion). But most of its neurons are crammed into its cerebellum, which navigates its huge body and hard-working trunk, leaving a small portion of neurons for its cerebral cortex — the seat of high-level thinking. We, on the other hand, have three times as many cerebral neurons (some of which make up our unusually large prefrontal cortex — the seat of “super high-level” thinking). No other animal has anywhere close to our cerebral neuronal density, which is the basis of our remarkable cognitive complexity, including the unique form of human consciousness.
As impressive as it is, this cerebral complexity also underlies the human predicament. Tortured by our own minds like no other animal, we expend a lot of mental energy reliving past anguish, anticipating future distress, stewing in self-righteous anger, and reacting to triggers that are products of our overactive imaginations.
If other animals could study us the way we study them, they would be puzzled by our unique ability to inflict misery on ourselves. They would call us out for what we are: oddly paradoxical creatures who long to be happy while creating our own suffering in the form of anxiety, fury, depression, self-pity, and even self-loathing. We worry about things we have no control over. We aspire to goals we lack the discipline to achieve. We whine about not being understood while casting a critical eye on others. We stubbornly defend our entrenched opinions despite ambiguous if not contradictory evidence. Complicating all of this is our struggle to adapt to a complex world that we ourselves created. The paradoxes of being human are stacked high.
While they don’t know it, other animals have it easier.
Comparing humans and other animals, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had an interesting perspective on who suffers more. In his 1851 essay “On the Suffering of the World,” he argues that there is no contest:
- “Boredom is a form of suffering unknown to brutes … whereas in the case of man it has become a downright scourge.”
- Human needs are “much more difficult to satisfy than those of the brute” because “the brute is much more content with mere existence than man.”
- “Brutes show real wisdom when compared with us … their quiet, placid enjoyment of the present moment … puts us to shame for the many times we allow our thoughts to make us restless and discontented.”
- “Evil presses upon the brute only with its own intrinsic weight; whereas with us the fear of its coming often makes its burden ten times more grievous.”
Schopenhauer points out that only humans are haunted by the spectre of their own death. Ultimately, “need and boredom are the two poles of human life” and “suffering in human life [is] out of all proportion to its pleasures.” He concludes that we should actually envy other animals, because the human life is characterized by misery “where each of us pays the penalty of existence in his own peculiar way” but “misfortune in general is the rule.” He suggests that we humans should address one another as “my fellow sufferer.”
Lest you are tempted to dismiss Schopenhauer as comically extreme, he reminds us that most ancient Indian and Greek mythologies put human misery at the centre of their stories, as does the Christian doctrine that “we come into the world with the burden of sin upon us … having to continually atone for this sin.” I would add that the seeming serenity of Buddhism starts from the premise that life is interminable suffering. And that suicide appears to be a unique human affliction: while other animals can inflict harm on themselves and respond to trauma with self-neglect, they do not demonstrate an intent to kill themselves. As science writer Jesse Bering puts it in his book Suicidal, “On no occasion has a distraught or ostracized ape ever been seen … to climb to the highest branch it could find and jump. That’s us. We’re the ape that jumps.” In fact, research indicates that at least 40 percent of us contemplate suicide at some point in our lives, and fully half of that group formulate plans to carry it out. It would appear that it takes the complexity of a human brain to have the sophistication to curtail its own existence. It’s hard to sum up the human condition, but physician Russ Harris does a pretty good job: “The psychological processes of a normal human mind are often destructive, and create psychological suffering for us all, sooner or later.”
What’s Our Problem?
I like the way author Nassim Nicholas Taleb captures our predicament: “Our minds are like inmates, captive to our biology, unless we manage a cunning escape.”3 (Remember these last six words because I’ll come back to them.) In fact, our minds have minds of their own. Of the many human paradoxes, this is the central one and the primary source of our unique struggle: we are captive to ourselves. Our well-being depends on a three-pound, electrical meat machine with a long, circuitous history of development that yielded some amazing features but also some troublesome glitches — not “bugs” per se, since the flaws are embedded in the features themselves.
The problem, at a high level: our brains are imperfect in substantive ways that are not obvious to us.
The massively complex information-processing apparatus that is the human brain is a jerry-rigged contraption that evolution built over an extended period by gradually adding new components to an original operating platform. This unimaginably long development process (which is still in progress) has culminated in a peculiar and somewhat sloppy fusion of an “ancient, basic” thinking system (that operates subconsciously) and a “modern, special” one (that is largely conscious). Cognitive scientists typically refer to the older and newer systems as System 1 and System 2, respectively. Each system can be crudely associated with distinct brain areas, but there is significant anatomical overlap between them. And there are a couple of significant kinks in the overall design of this cognitive machinery — features that entail flaws in need of a fix.
First, System 1 does most of the work, but its features were designed to facilitate survival in a different kind of world than the one we live in now. System 1 design flaws cause us to misperceive reality in significant ways. The Buddha insisted that human suffering is the result of an illusory view of reality and that the elimination of suffering depends on a deep, meditative acknowledgement of the “facts of existence.” We can quibble about what these facts are, but his general insight is piercing: human suffering is largely a function of misunderstanding how the world (including other people) actually works.
Second, because System 1 functions largely below the level of our consciousness, its design flaws are concealed from our day-to-day awareness even though they produce conspicuous distress for us. (Decades before Sigmund Freud wrote about the unconscious, our friend Schopenhauer posited that the largest part of our thinking and motivation is hidden from us.) System 1’s errors wouldn’t be so problematic if we were able to account for them more easily and use System 2’s more analytic approach to override them. But the marriage between System 1 and System 2 is not an equitable one: old and new don’t always work well together. Our ancient cognitive system — which governs the vast majority of our thinking, feeling, and behaviour — yields little authority to the newer cognitive system, which has the capacity to be better behaved and better adapted to our modern world. Good historical reasons support System 1’s dominance — its speed was crucial for survival in the past and still is. But the imbalance between the two thinking systems is outdated: System 2’s backseat role is ill-suited to being human today.
So it’s hard to be human because our extraordinarily complex brains are hard to manage. Much of our incremental suffering, above and beyond what other species endure, arises from (i) System 1 design features that often morph into design flaws, clouding our ability to perceive reality accurately, and (ii) System 2’s inability to detect and correct the flaws, constrained as it is by System 1’s overbearing nature.
What are the specific design features that become flaws and cause us misery? Five big ones stand out. Are there fixes? Yes, there are fixes — maybe more accurately described as “workarounds,” but fixes nonetheless.
Ted Cadsby's revealing and engaging book demonstrates that we can harness the power in our heads and get out of our own way. A hopeful manual for actually living a better life.
Amanda Lang, bestselling author and award-winning business journalist