August 5, 2015

My brain is autocorrecting my life

What causes understanding?

I’m sitting in a coffee shop and while staring off into the abyss of my thoughts my eyes stumbled upon the giant poster of a vintage French cigarette ad hanging on the wall. The graphic is an elephant draped in a vibrant scarlet fabric with the words “JE NE FUME QUE LE NIL” written in text that’s about a foot tall. I know a little bit of French and I recognize the beginning of the sentence as translating to “I don’t smoke” – the rest of the phrase I don’t know and can’t translate.

Then I look down at my laptop, which is open to some page that begins with a headline in 36 point font. English is my primary language and I recognize the words, their content and meaning, innately - instantly. Our primary language is so innate it is seamlessly processed in our brains. It just is. I just understand it. Whatever machinery that crunches the translation from words into meaning in my brain occurs faster than I can even think about it. But the French words, I see them, but not the same as the English words. There’s a level of abstraction removed from the quickness that is afforded my native language. There’s a delay even though there’s no step of translation involved (I learned what French I can recall at an early enough age that I don't have to consciously translate many basic words or phrases).

I continued stare at the words on the poster to see if I could make them appear to me as natural as the words on the web page. I couldn’t. I couldn’t get rid of the delay. I'm guessing that that delay is inherent to my current level of ability with the foreign language. It’s probably also due to the infrequency with which I practice it (reading, writing, or speaking). In my daily life my experience with French is statistically nil. As I think about it I wonder if those with more developed multi-lingual skills see the words of the non-primary languages as easily as I see English words. That if I put more effort into practicing French that that delay of comprehension will somehow decrease (or even diminish) and I will be able to see French and English as facilely as I see red and blue. Both red and blue being colors but equal though different, yet I am able to understand them both.

The curious tangent, to me, about this question is what else does my brain do so expediently without my conscious knowledge and how does that operation affect my life and in particular my choices and my general outlook? I know that my brain is probably making many, many choices and judgments (thousands perhaps) every second and minute of every day. I suppose this is the task of the subconscious or even the preconscious. But I can't help but think that those basic decisions percolate up to the surface and form more complex traits and characteristics. For example, I can be highly critical with negative overtones. Why is that? Why am I not more relaxed and laissez-faire? Even as I sit and think about what’s happened in my life over the last few months I know that I'm maximizing or at least magnifying the critical aspects – or perhaps more honestly magnifying the criticality of my views of the events as opposed to the events alone – while minimizing or not even seeing the more positive ones.

I’m confident that this function of my brain is essential to keeping me alive – not only by telling my heart to beat and my lungs to breath, but by making sure I don’t try to inspect the undercarriage of a moving bus or try to fly off an ocean cliff. But I can't help but think that this autocorrect feature is also keeping me from enjoying more of life. From seeing more beauty in things and situations and people that I nonchalantly judge, categorize, shelve, and ignore. I can only be so “meta” about myself. That’s the nature of auto-evaluation. We view biases with a biased telemetry system so we are mostly blind to biased thoughts and actions. It’s like I'm chasing my own tail. Every once and a while I catch a glimpse of it in my periphery but I will try vigorously at times to catch it, but what I'm seeing and chasing is only the tip something much bigger I cannot clearly see.

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