The Trap of Our Mindset

M. Bakri Musa

Related to the concept of a free mind is that of mindset, defined as one’s attitude to or philosophy of life. With all the established neural networks and stored memories in the brain, it forms a working hypothesis of what reality is. How the brain perceives new information is influenced by its existing working hypothesis, its pre-set narrative of reality.

If the brain were to receive new information that would not conform to or diametrically contradict the brain’s preexisting narrative, then it (the brain) would use various ingenuous interpretations to make the new data conform to that pre-set pattern.

A dramatic demonstration of this is the rare clinical condition called Cabgras delusion. Here the sufferer, through injury or stroke, has lost the capacity to recognize hitherto familiar faces including those of close family members. The patient would readily admit that the person facing him looks, speaks and even smells like his mother for example, but would adamantly refuse to admit that is who she is. Instead he is convinced that she is nothing more than a look-alike imposter, intent on swindling him for some nefarious ends, as with claiming insurance benefits. Imagine the mother’s heartbreak!

During the heyday of Freudian psychoanalysis, psychiatrists had a great time invoking the Oedipus complex* as a defense mechanism to explain the dynamics of this malady. Those explanations may make for titillating reading but they do not in any way help the poor patient.

The University of California, San Diego, neurologist Ramachandran studied these patients using modern clinical techniques and came up with a much more scientifically supportable explanation. In so doing he was also able to help his patients, the ultimate goal, while in the process greatly expanding our understanding of the brain.

What happened to the patient was that when he saw his mother, he did not experience the usual associated warm feelings one typically expects on meeting one’s loved ones. Apparently the accident had interrupted the neural pathway between the patient’s eyes to his thalamus and hypothalamus – the seats of emotions. Thus while the brain recognized the images of his mother, those images did not trigger the usual associated warm emotions to corroborate the identity. To resolve this discordance, the brain (or its thinking or cortical part) ingeniously concocted a new “explanation,” and the only “logical” one would be to interpret the woman not as the familiar warm mother but a conniving impostor. That would neatly “explain” the lack of emotions.

Fortunately for this particular patient, the neural pathway from his ears to the thalamus and hypothalamus was intact. So to treat the patient Ramachandran had the mother phone the patient from another room without being seen by him. He of course recognized the voice as coming from his mother, as the pathway from his ears to the thalamus was intact and with it, the associated warm emotional feelings were evoked on hearing her familiar voice. As he did not see her, there were no conflicting visual images to confuse his brain.

Then gradually the mother would approach the patient while still talking with him on a mobile phone, finally making eye contact while still talking on the phone. Through repeating this process many times, the patient was able to bring back his pre-existing, familiar, warm emotions for his mother as he had now learned to integrate the voice with the visual images of the face. The plasticity of his brain enabled it to form new pathways from his eyes to the thalamus to bypass the previously damaged ones.

The mind has a coherent picture of reality, and this picture in turn is created through our experiences and learning. If there are elements in the current reality that are jarring or do not fit that existing pattern, then the mind “re-edits” those elements so as to fit the pre-existing pattern.

This composite and internally consistent hypothesis our brain has of reality is what’s meant by mindset. In so far as members of a particular group, race, or profession have the commonality of experiences and thus developed a common internally consistent hypothesis of reality, then they can be said to share the same mindset. Such is the difference between the Malay mindset and the colonial one.

These established neural networks remain unchanged except through injuries or disease when those connections could be interfered with. Stated differently, we cannot change our mindset. What we can do is subject ourselves to new experiences and with that, learning opportunities, so our brain can form new pathways and establish new networks. When those new patterns prove to be more efficient or useful to us in interpreting reality, we would gradually replace the old, less efficient pathways.

For that to happen we must first have the willingness if not eagerness to learn new things and be exposed to new experiences so our brain cells can forge those new networks and then slowly discard the old and less-useful ones. There is of course no guarantee that our mind would form new networks but merely simply reinterpret the new data and information to conform to our existing view of the world, as the patient with the Capgras delusion. The hope however, is that with sufficient new experiences and the opening of new neural channels and networks, our brain would use those new ones and then prune off the old and less used and less reliable patterns of the past. That was precisely the strategy used in treating the patient with the Capgras syndrome.

Thus it is not so much as a new mindset rather that the old one that has been “improved” upon to such a degree as to be sufficiently different from the old one. Therefor it would be more fruitful to talk about a mindset that can grow (or improved upon) with new experiences instead of a new mindset.

Next: “Fixed” Versus “Growth” Mindset
Adapted from the writer’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.

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