Look at you all social on social media. You must be a social butterfly. Think about the diverse range of social interactions spanning the gamut, from performance in job interviews and forming impressions on dates, to bargaining with a pushy salesperson and calculating the trajectory of a basketball into the hoop on behalf of your team. But what’s going on under the hood?
As smart as you are, I’m pretty sure you’ve done a few dumb things out there in the real world. I’d hate to compare you to an inanimate object, but a good analogy for this is a high-performance laptop running buggy, bloated, badly organized software. The CPU (your brain) is the product of exquisite engineering, but introduce a program that has security loopholes, sloppy coding, and defects, and you have a cataclysmic situation in the form of system crashes.
Our ability to make measured decisions is predominantly processed by the prefrontal cortex—your brain’s chief executive if you will. This is where you’re able to maintain focus in distraction-rich environments, problem solve, and inhibit inappropriate behaviors (attention, conflict monitoring, and impulse control respectively). But these resources are finite, and “raw” executive functioning doesn’t REALLY exist because it never operates in isolation. Rather, it is constantly receiving input from subcortical regions of the brain. These are the regions beneath the prefrontal cortex where all the priming takes place.
Largely automated and reflexive in nature, it’s often referred to as the “subconscious.” There are a lot of moving parts, but I want you to think of this region as being:
a) Home to your beliefs, values, memories, unique experiences, and emotional propensities—literally everything that makes you YOU gets aggregated here.
b) Processes that create a “working model” of an event and inform your social behavior. It’s also where you do the most filtering (inferences/gut feelings, attitudes, prejudices/biases, persuasion, etc). When you’re dealing with another human being, you’re also actively constructing a working model of THEIR beliefs, expectations, emotions, etc. Does that make you a mind reader? Well, yeah, sort of, thanks to mirror neurons in the brain (though some are arguably better at it than others).
After this initial appraisal, the executive regions integrate additional information about the event and enrich that working model to arrive at a deeper meaning.
When executive functioning is compromised—either because of lack of sleep, too much alcohol, poor nutrition, or faulty feedback being received from the lower regions (i.e., weak belief system, maladaptive values, etc)—people are less likely to track and update the meaning being created in a social setting. They’ll be less likely to consider another person’s perspective or negotiate, which bodes poorly for all parties involved.
You only have one ‘self’ to contend with. However, self, identity, whatever you want to call it, aren’t things. They aren’t objects. Instead, they are biological processes built within the brain from numerous interactive components, layer by layer, over time. Most importantly, they aren’t rigid. Your brain is malleable.
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