Vajra Blue

Mindfulness and Compassion. Understanding trauma in young people.

Mindfulness: Authority bias and finding out who is really in charge? Changing our inner world.


A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on,.

Attributed to Mark Twain

Mindfulness is becoming ever more popular and is in danger of being seen as a panacea for all the problems that trouble the human mind. Even when the practice is divorced from the other elements that form part of a spiritual path, it can be a useful tool for self management and helping to create greater contentment for our lives.

Practicing mindfulness can help us to work out exactly who is running the different aspects of our mental lives, and how this impacts upon our sense of fulfilment and happiness in what we do.

It can help us to avoid being fooled by the world and others.

The human brain has been described as the most complex structure in the known universe. At least 100 billion nerve cells and counting, all of which can make up to 10,000 connections to other cells and to themselves. These connections are constantly forming and reforming in response to incoming stimuli from the world around us, and anything that happens regularly produces stronger connections and results in brain pathways that can persist for long periods, and even for our whole lives.

A reasonably well functioning human brain generates both consciousness and the human mind that interfaces between the outside world and our inner world.

The human species evolved in a dangerous world. One in which we have been prey animals, and for most of our existence we have been hunted by other creatures intent on their own survival at the cost of ours. Because of this we have developed many ways to improve our chances of survival. The most important of these has been the development of separate brain modules, or functional Apps, that run most of our systems in as energy efficient way as possible.

Systems that first and foremost are about our personal survival. This is perhaps why our brains are at least three times more sensitive to incoming signals about potential dangers than to stimuli that signify safe situations.

Thought takes both energy and time. In a crisis we have very little time in which to act, and stopping to think about the danger would make it that much more likely that we would become the next meal for a hungry family of predators.

Thought takes both energy and time.

Energy preservation is also an essential part of survival. If you have ever seen film of Kalahari Bushmen hunting you would see this principle in action. First of all they try to kill their target animal outright,and if that is not successful they will follow it, sometimes for days and often for many miles, until it collapses from exhaustion and can be finished off without additional risk. In this situation it is the creature that runs out of energy first that loses.

Some of these survival systems have been hard wired by evolution into our brains. In other species this can be seen when baby birds cower and hide in response to the shape of a hawk, or the way Lorenz’s goslings attached to the first moving thing they saw after hatching, expecting it to be their mother.

Many of the other subroutines that we use are set up as we grow and develop throughout our childhood. We pick up much of our sense of what it is to be human from living amongst our family, in our towns, in our country, in our culture.

These are the basic and automatic ways of behaving and being that are necessary for us to become our sort of human being. American southerner, Chinese peasant farmer, South American Gaucho etc.

We learn these lessons through a process of behavioural and cognitive osmosis, as the ideas and behaviours gradually seep deep into our minds as they are constantly repeated over many years. In much the same way that we learn to talk our own language by being immersed in it. French children learn French, an Australian Aboriginal child will learn one of about four hundred languages.

A process of behavioural and cognitive osmosis.

We also learn a lot about ourselves, about the kind of person we are, what matters to us, who we are. Many of us pick up some very negative and unhelpful beliefs about ourselves as we grow up. These beliefs can become part of who we are unless they are challenged in some way. So, big boys don’t cry means that it is wrong to show emotions if you are a man, girls play with dolls, in some cultures females are not seen as being worth educating and can develop a belief that they are inferior to men.

We may learn from a teacher that we are stupid, that we can never do anything right as we only ever get 85% in our tests. This can be seen in one of the selective schools in the city where I live. A government school for the brightest children where getting 98% can be seen, and indeed is accepted by many of the students as representing failure. An unfortunate side effect of a world wide education system where test scores mean more than the effort put into learning, and results in the consequent alienation of large numbers of students who end up being put off learning for life.

When we add in what is known as authority bias, we are potentially in big trouble. One of the reasons that advertisements include men in white coats trying to sell things is that we tend to trust authority. If a “scientist” says it then it must be true. One example of this authority bias had tragic consequences for a plane load of people, when a passenger was allowed to fly into the ground and no one did much to prevent it.

The investigation into this (and similar accidents) revealed  a culture of respect for senior pilots in many airlines. In some airlines most of the pilots were ex military which made the problem even worse. The tragic consequence of this was that junior pilots were reluctant to speak up when the senior man was obviously doing something wrong, or had failed to notice a warning. This discovery lead to the development of what became known as “Crew Resource Management”, a particular way of training crews so that all could be heard and similar mistakes avoided in the future. Similar difficulties have been seen in other areas such as surgery and engineering.

Air Crash Investigations look for what is called a Root Cause, that is the underlying system problem that allows catastrophic events such as a plane crash to arise.

When we are mindful we put ourselves in a position where we can determine the root causes of our own thoughts and behaviours. Many of these have become almost automatic as we have internalised them into one of our mental Apps. We can find ourselves following these instructions blindly as they have become habits of behaviour and thought and no longer ways of behaving or thinking that we even think to challenge any more, even though many of the conditions that lead to their becoming internalised may be twenty years in our past and no longer hold true.

Many of these beliefs and prejudices become part of our internal world while we are growing up.

Authority bias is at play here. As we tend to give authoritative people more credence than they really deserve, it will come as no surprise to find that we  tend to believe our own unconscious authority, and do so very firmly. After all, many of these beliefs and prejudices became part of our internal world while we were growing up. They have become part of both our personal and group cultures. The very stuff on which stereotypes and prejudices can take hold. If someone in a position of authority comes along and reaffirms such beliefs it is not surprising that these ideas can become widely believed, and many of these ideas are much more dangerous than just urban myth.

When we are mindful, when we take the time to sit with our own selves these internal thoughts and beliefs tend to float to the surface. When this happens we have the opportunity to listen to our own thoughts and beliefs. We can measure them against the real world in which we live and can then challenge or affirm them depending on the evidence that we can find to support them. Through being mindful we can include this constant process of reassessing our beliefs and attitudes in light of the constant state of flux around us as part of who we are.

In times like the present, where it seems that there is an increasing swing towards a more totalitarian view of human interactions, it is even more important to monitor our mental world if we are to avoid becoming part of a human herd that accepts whatever it is told at face value.

Reflect on everything.

Challenge everything.

Be an individual.

Author: SandySB

Child and adolescent psychiatrist. Parent. Blogger.

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