31 July 2012

The Meaning-Making-Machine

I once held a human brain in my two latex-gloved hands.  It was in an Anatomy and Physiology lab in college.   My first thought was disgusted disbelief that this rubbery mass that reeked of formaldehyde was capable of being an operating system for a human being.  But then a reverent awe overcame me, and I knew it was in fact capable of such things.  I knew such a wonderous design could only be the product of a divine creator.   And in those smelly seconds before I passed it back to the grad student, I was profoundly grateful for my mind. 

A friend recently told me about the way our brains are "meaning-making-machines."  We are hard-wired to make meaning out of everything.  I'm especially prone to this.  I can't casually observe ANYTHING without my brain making some kind of running commentary about the images my eyes are sending to my operating system.  Everything in the world around me is processed first by my vision and then immediately judgments are made, analysis is begun, and then come the feelings.  Let me give a couple examples.  (I could write examples ALL day long, probably because I'm exhibiting examples in my life ALL day long.)

*A woman stands up and walks quickly out of  church tears streaming down her face. 
- Okay, that's the image.  Here is the immediate, seemingly impulsive and uncontrollable analysis.
"Wow.  She must be going through a really hard time.  I need to give her a hug after church.  I wonder what it is?!?!  Maybe her husband is addicted to pornography."
- And then of course the reality: 

Her friend next to her make a totally hilarious remark, she can't stop laughing, the tears start flowing, she puts on her most serious expression to cover her faux-pas and makes a break for it to salvage some dignity. 

* I go to pick up my kids from my mother-in-law who was babysitting them.  She has their shoes on, the diaper-bag all packed up and they are sitting on the front porch.  [Image]

"Oh man.  It was a bad day. She can't wait to get rid of these kids.  I wish she would just tell me if she didn't enjoy babysitting them.  I'm more than willing to find someone else.  Gosh, could she make it any more obvious how anxious she is for them to leave?!" [Meaning-making-machine analysis.]

She knew I would be exhausted.  She was doing her best to be thoughtful and considerate.  She thought I would really appreciate not having to gather up belongings, put shoes on, and herd the kids (like sprinting cats) from around her house and yard into the car.  [Reality.]

I'm no good at numbers, but statistically speaking what are the odds that the meanings our brain is pumping out at light speed are actually accurate? One of my favorite quotes fits nicely here.  From Francesca Farr:

"Our view of reality is only a view, not reality itself." 

It's as if I am incapable of LIVING without constantly speculating and making assumptions that often  lead me down paths of resentment, hurt, jealousy, or even pride and false superiority.
The harm isn't so much that my brain is constantly trying to attach meaning or analysis to every situation, interaction and communication (although I think I can work a little to minimize that)  the harm is that these judgments I am making about the world around me are strongly influencing my feelings, which therefore influence my behavior. 

The 12-step manual says "Feelings are not facts."   What my friend was trying to point out to me was that when I listen to Pete tell me things, I have to try my hardest not to assign meaning to them right away.  It's becoming easy for me to dismiss anything negative he says about me as "lies of the irrational addict mind" when there are times that I need to listen humbly and carefully to what he's trying to express.  

{As a side note, I'm TERRIBLE at discerning the difference.  Advice welcome!!}

 So, while I am so grateful for this busy brain of mine, I know that I need to do a little practice. It's not just Pete's words, but also his behaviors (why didn't he respond to my text?, why didn't he kiss me good-bye?, why is he taking so long in the bathroom?, why is he being so kind/unkind?) that I need to be more open-minded about.  And it's not just Pete, but every other person in my life. 

I'm curious about this, if anyone has any understanding of why our brains are instinctively making meaning out of everything we see, tell me about it.   I'm fascinated. 


  1. "I'm curious about this, if anyone has any understanding of why our brains are instinctively making meaning out of everything we see, tell me about it. "

    I think it may have something to do with our survival instincts of 'fight or flight.' We are wired for self-protection, so I imagine our brains constantly scanning the world around us, trying to keep tabs on things and watching for potential threats.

    What's interesting to me is how recovery principles invite more conscious thought, more self-awareness/mindfulness, and more deliberate responses (rather than just "instinctual" reactions in the moment).

    I have also heard some of this could be related to culture as well. I've heard some about Eastern cultures, for example, reinforcing principles of mindfulness more than Western cultures do.

    I suspect some of it is personality-based, too. my sister, for example, is just naturally more 'laid-back' and I've always been more intense. I see it in my kids, too...differences in ways they deal with things.

    1. I think you're right, while it isn't an excuse NOT to be this way, some cultures and religions have a better foundation of mindfulness, meditation, etc. I feel like they have a lot to offer to this way of being. (I'm thinking in particular of Buddhism right now.)

  2. It's so ironic that you post about this, Jane, because I have thought about it so much recently! And on top of that, I am reading the book Blink, by Malcom Gladwell, which is all about how the instinctual judgment is usually correct, which I believe in some cases it is. Like on multiple choice tests, they would always say your first guess is your best guess. However, the situations you described (and SO many I can think of from my life) is our preliminary judgment of a situation is usually distorted with our own insecurities and fears feeding in.

    I really believe that is Satan's strongest ploy in these final days - to warp our perceptions and use that to bring us down. These last days are a mind game! So lately I have thought a lot about how to straighten out our viewpoints to match REALITY instead of Satan's tweaked paradigms.

    I totally agree with hopeandhealingadmin above -- it could be attributed to cultural and personality differences. However, sometimes I hesitate to place things in a "cultural" or "generational" tendency, because than I feel like it's taking out individual accountability and excusing it in some category or stereotype.

    Truthfully, I think these quick judgments stem from our insecurities. I think the more emotionally independent and confident we become, the less we see ourselves having these thoughts. And I say that because I see that change happening in my life. I am really working right now on being more emotionally independent, and it has made a world of difference.

    Anyway, I will stop analyzing now. I have thought about this too much.

    Love you!

    1. I haven't read anything by Malcom Gladwell yet, so let me know your final analysis. But I did hear an interview on NPR with Frank Partnoy who wrote Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, which makes some contradictory points to Blink. I tend to find myself faulting on the side of impulsiveness so I'm eager to read that book too.

  3. Chantel -- Blink is on my reading list right now, too!

    it could be attributed to cultural and personality differences. However, sometimes I hesitate to place things in a "cultural" or "generational" tendency, because than I feel like it's taking out individual accountability and excusing it in some category or stereotype.

    Just to be clear, I ABSOLUTELY agree! I should have made that more clear. I think it helps to understand some of the reasons why our initial reactions may be the way they are, but it's one reason why I'm such a fan of recovery work for ANYONE -- because as I said, "recovery principles invite more conscious thought, more self-awareness/mindfulness, and more deliberate responses (rather than just "instinctual" reactions in the moment)." Recovery is about agency to me...agency and the Atonement to bring about change in heart, character, mind...to allow space for truth to guide rather than emotion or culture or family patterns or even 'natural' instincts.

    And I think you have hit on something here in a big way: "I think these quick judgments stem from our insecurities." I often talk about looking up rather than looking side-to-side. I think the more grounded we are in following God's voice and trusting in Him, we're able to be more confident in letting a lot of the information clutter just go by the wayside...and/or we have more clarity on the information we're getting from what we see around us.


  4. I just wanted to stop by and say hello to a fellow healer. It is true how skewed our reality can become.

  5. Interesting stuff to think about. This brought to mind a devotional from Elder Oaks I heard when I was in college. I googled it and found this quote that sums up his main point, "There are two kinds of judging: final judgments, which we are forbidden to make, and intermediate judgments, which we are directed to make, but upon righteous principles." I've always felt that it's impossible to not make judgments as we experience life and try make sense of it. My intent as I've grown over the years is to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Or as my husband likes to say, "I just try to assume that they are doing their best."
    It also reminds me of an idea I picked up from an Orson Scott Card book (don't remember which, sorry!) where essentially, good sees good, and bad sees bad. Someone who is not living the way they should is the first one to cry "hypocrite!" while another who is genuinely trying to live a good life may be deemed naive because they assume all others are acting from the same "innocent" outlook. I think it's very hard to drop our own lenses and see the world from another perspective.
    I think Chantel's thought, "I think the more emotionally independent and confident we become, the less we see ourselves having these thoughts" is right on. If my self worth is strong, I will be more likely to assume good intentions in others as I process all the inputs I receive.

    btw, I loved Blink and all of Gladwell's books actually.

    also, my 18month old was sitting on my lap as I read this post. He kept pointing to the pic of the brain and saying "coo-kie! coo-kie!" How's that for an erroneous judgement??? :)

  6. This IS fascinating. And it is so so so true. And I'll bet our reality is so skewed from actual reality. But I think we do the best we can to create meaning behind images in order to make sense of what is going on around us. I loved your examples. They show us that while we will always create meaning, we need to be flexible in our thoughts and leave room for alternate interpretation.

    PS--That would be one chewy cookie. ;)

  7. Kinda related, but when I was in my 'worst' place I'd ever been in -- three young kids, a hard pregnancy, a time intensive calling for both me and my husband, and the aftermath of husband's biggest disclosure to date, I really started to notice 'assumptions'. How people in my life, people who genuinely loved me, could see some of the picture -- the sick kids, the pregnancy, the busy schedule, and they started to 'assume'. Like, they'd make some excuses for where I was lacking, but it was almost like 'enough is enough', and my Mom and others started hinting that 'maybe you should start to get things back to normal' (i.e., the house back to where it usually was in terms of order, the kids doing a multitude of fun outings and crafts, etc . . . all the stuff that sank to the bottom of the list when I was merely trying to survive.) I realized people saw hard things in my life, and assumed they saw the whole picture, then when I wasn't 'bouncing back' the way they thought I should, they started to wonder why I was being so wimpy about life. (I found out later there was some talk in my family about maybe I had postpartum depression -- I was hurt that so many people considered this but never approached me to find out if I was OK or if they could help.) I had the chance to speak in front of our Relief Society twice during this time at different quarterly activities -- my plea to them (and what I'm still working on myself) is to just give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to assume that everyone is DOING THEIR BEST, and if that doesn't seem to be enough, maybe it's time to step in and see if you can help, instead of speculating about what else it is they could be accomplishing. Long story short (too late), I've been working on two mantras in my life -- 'give everyone the benefit of the doubt' and 'assume that they are doing their best/trying their hardest/had the best of intentions.' Some days I do better than others at remembering this . . .

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  9. I don't know why our brains jump to such conclusions but it sure seems to get me in a lot of trouble!

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