How You Are Being Programmed Without Knowing It

If they fire together, they wire together.

Donald Hebb

This famous theory was articulated in the 1940’s by neuroscientist Donald Hebb. He described in his book The Organization of Behavior, how, when various neurons in our brain “fire” together, they “wire” together.

Easier said, this means that when you see your neighbor driving a new blue Volkswagen, the neurons in your brain remembering your neighbor will fire up, just like where the image of the car is represented. From that moment on, you will associate this blue Volkswagen with your neighbor.

Another example of this mechanism is when you smell a particular type of pie, that reminds you of your grandmother. Also, when you are playing soccer, and the ball crosses the white line on the side, you know you have to throw it in again. In both of the aforementioned situations there was a moment, where you learned that the ball crossing the white line means something, and that the smell of pie usually occurs at your grandmother’s. At these moments there were (at least) two neurons firing togetherand therefore wiring together.

However, the stimulation of the two variables needs to be repeated, for it to stick long term. Therefore, when two neurons fire together more often, they form a stronger association.

Now imagine this, you leave your house in the morning, headphones on and you are listening to the latest Coldplay album. You walk to the bus stop, where upon arrival you see a poster sliding by. You see a beautiful woman, looking happy, using a L’Oreal product, followed by a SUV in mountainous terrain.

SUV x mountainous terrain = sense of adventure

According to “if they fire together, they wire together”, in this story there are either new connections being made, or old ones being strengthened. Important to realize is, that it is not necessary to be consciously present for this mechanism to work. The biggest part of our consciousness, is subconscious. This means that if you do not try be aware of it, you will barely notice it.

Division of our mind

Nevertheless, when the L’Oreal commercial flashes by there is a connection being made between women, probably “prettiness”, and L’Oreal. Just like the Ford SUV, and the mountainous terrain provoke a feeling of adventure. From that moment on you will be more likely to associate these two things. This all depends however, on who you are. Man are more likely to be impressed by the Ford advertising, where women are more likely to be affected by the L’Oreal poster. On top of this all, the fact that you were listening to Coldplay at the time, might make it a trigger to think of these commercials or the feelings they provoked.

None of these associations are being formed because you were asking for it. Rather, they are a consequence of ingenuous marketing targeting your subconscious. This is all based on the idea that emotions drive behavior.

The idea of advertising is to provoke positive emotions in your subconscious.

Even though, marketing companies try to increase the likelihood you will buy their product, a lot of similar mechanisms are going on without their interference.

When we grow up for example, certain behavior is being encouraged, where other is being discouraged. Hitting your little brother will usually not be accepted, but brushing your teeth will. These cues from your parents provoke emotions. Hopefully, as a consequence you will associate positive emotions with brushing your teeth to feel the contrary when you hit your little brother.

At this age, an argument based on the long term consequences of not brushing your teeth will have little effect. Even though, in adulthood we might understand this better, still it is far from the deciding factor in our behavior.

As things go, most of these mechanisms are at work without our attention. Over the years you grew up, your parents might have only given you affection when you perform well in school, or your friends only thought you cool when you were hateful against the history teacher. Where nowadays, your boss only approves of you, when you care more about results than the happiness of your colleagues.

However, do you agree with this? Do you feel these emotions should be triggered in these situations? Is what you believe really what you value, or is it only because some ancient program is triggering “positive” emotions that otherwise have no real meaning. Once you realize this though, you have the opportunity to change.


How Less, Is More Freedom of Choice

In a recent blog, I wrote about how I noticed that when I do less, more seems to happen. In reality however, there is not really happening anything more. It is just that I have the head space to notice what is actually going on. On a similar note, the result of minor changes that I made to my daily routine recently, showed me, how reducing my freedom of choice, actually gave me more freedom to choose.

Unlimited possibilities

I decided that I would not use my phone until midday. As a consequence, my working efficiency went through the roof. After though, I realized that it was not necessarily the phone itself that made it harder to concentrate, but rather the choices it demanded me to make.

Without fully recognizing what was going on, I had to make 20 decisions within a minute. To respond, or not to respond. Like this photo, or not. Watch the next video, yes or no. Ultimately, my mind was tired before anything constructive had taken place.

Over the previous 12.000 years our society has changed immensely. At the time, it began with Agricultural Revolution, that changed our everyday life from gathering and hunting, to making crop grow on the field.

Then, roughly 200 years ago, the Industrial Revolution provoked another major change. Factories allowed for mass production, therefore creating space for other people to specialize in fields that not directly provided food and shelter.

Finally, roughly 50 years ago with the Digital Revolution, the first computers made it’s appearance. From then until now, these computers went from hardly producing a word, the size of a bedroom, to computers that allow you to access every bit of information on the planet, the size of a chest pocket.

The world around us has at least changed a thousandfold, nevertheless, it seems that our brains are still the same as before all these developments. Some sources even argue that our brains have shrank the previous 10.000 years. The amount of decisions we had to make before however, were significantly less than now.

Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers. That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time.

Harari, Yuval Noah

Our brain, weighs about 2% of our total body mass, but it consumes up to 20% of the body’s energy production. Therefore, the increased amount of decisions that are demanded to us nowadays put even more strain on our energy supplies.

All these possibilities create an illusion of freedom. What is really happening however, is that they trap the mind in a circle of consecutive decision taking processes. That make us prone to worrying about the past, and overthinking the future. Even though, the only thing we can actually influence, is now.

I realized that when I put away my phone, do not open my e-mail, or make a planning, I am far from limiting myself. The thing with restriction is, that it is subject to the values and ideas of myself and my environment. What for the one is restriction, is liberating to the other. In the west we value our “freedom” so highly, that everything that seems to reduce it, is diminishing our quality of life.

When you take a better look though, we have not only become slaves to the luxuries and the comfort we enjoy, even more so, we have become slaves to our sense of freedom. How free are you really then?

I believe freedom is not the accumulation of the amount of choices I have, rather it is the presence that I have when taking decisions.

The moment I reduce all the blur, my mind has energy to do what it is good at. The fact that I limit my physical actions, does not mean that everything that is not physical is limited as a consequence. Therefore, when I reduce the amount I use my phone, the amounts of time I turn on the TV, and the food choices I have to make, I actually create a better environment for my mind to thrive in.

Nobody Deserves Anything

The concept of doing something before, and getting something in return after, is one of the fundamental pillars our society was build upon. I work, I learn, and I listen, where after I will get something in return. As things go, we believe that when things are not constructed this way, people would just do whatever they want. Therefore, the concept of deserving something is deeply wired within our behavior. It often dictates expectations, emotions and decisions.

What Is Deserving?

Therefore, it looks like that something needs to happen before I can get ahead in life. Regardless if it is the work I do, if I treat someone kindly or if I was unfortunately born in to a poor family. Supposedly only then, I have the right on something in return.  The case is however, I do not have the right to anything, nor do I deserve anything. The fiction that is the idea of deserving, is a mere creation of us humans. There is no lion in the world that thinks, after following a gazelle for ten kilometers, I deserve to eat it now. Expecting hereafter, that nature will provide the animal ready to be eaten.

To believe this fiction for reality, is like playing roulette with my freedom of choice and emotions. Firstly, I only have the right on a reward, after I do something. Therefore, I start basing what I do on what I will get in return. Secondly, because I have unconsciously connected emotions with this process. Since it is up to someone else to give me what I deserve, I ultimately give away control over my emotions. Not until I realize however, that this concept is a mental creation, nothing more than a Fata Morgana, I can deal with it’s consequences appropriately. Do I agree with that I need to work for what I deserve? Do I want to let my feelings depend on the kind of reward I am getting for what I did?

The Deserve Delusion

I believe the delusion provoked by an idea so common within our society is stunning. It is a significant part of many bad feelings, friction within relationships, and often at the core of dysfunctional behavior. Nature, and our body as a part of it, do not function according to the idea of deserving something. The trees do not drop their leaves because they think they deserve new ones, our stomach does not think after two plates of salad it deserves a hamburger, nor does my body stop healing a cut in my arm just because it thinks it should have a break after three days.

Every single person is subject to the laws of nature, it is up to us though, how we handle them. Do I want to confuse me and my emotions by subscribing to an idea that is nothing more than the creation of a human brain, or do I realize that I can take and get whatever I want from what the universe has to offer. I do not need to wait for anybody to give me a reward, least of all myself. Engaging in what I like, what I perceive as important and what ultimately makes me happy is not something I deserve. It is mine already.