Friday, August 21, 2009

Tastes Like Chicken: The Appeal of the Familiar

In my post on Most Negative Thought I talked a little about how we as humans try to avoid change. Our conditioned mind, which functions at a very basic level, is only comfortable with things it has already done. This part of our mind is focused on survival; therefore anything it has not done and survived might mean death. As I said, a very basic level.

There is actually a specific part of our brain that is programmed to search out the familiar and bring it to the forefront of our consciousness. This Reticular Activating system (RAS) is found in the brain stem, where most of our body's survival functions are centered. The RAS filters information entering the brain from our vision, hearing, smell and other sources and sends it to more sophisticated areas of the brain so it can be noticed and processed. Here is an example of how the RAS works: suppose you decide to buy a Lexus automobile, and it will be the first Lexus you have ever owned or driven. As you are driving down the road you notice every other Lexus on the road, when you never did before. This is the RAS at work, bringing the familiar to the forefront.

The RAS is also at work every time you hear, see, feel, taste or try something new. Your brain will search for what the new thing reminds you of, as in, "it tastes like chicken." But to really understand this you must take it a step further. Let's say you meet someone new and feel an immediate dislike for that person. Upon reflection you realize the new person reminds you of someone from your past whom you dislike. It may be the other way around, as well, in the case of liking someone simply because that person reminds you of someone you like. 

Notice also, when experiencing something new, how you try to make it familiar by relating it to something you already know. Perhaps you are learning a new motor skill, or abstract concept. You will automatically try to equate it with something already in your sphere of experience. As a teacher of concepts that are new to many people, I can't tell  you the number of times students say, "so this is like ... " and then describe some other school of thought or something they have read.

When we were living in caves and running from the saber-toothed tiger, these aspects of our brain helped us stay alive. In today's world they actually prevent us from fully experiencing life in present time because they function by focusing on the past, rather than the present.

In the face of all the unhappiness, malaise and victimhood in the world today, those who seek an upgrade in their lives can receive an instant boost by reaching out for the gift that is always right in front of us -- present time. It is the most precious thing in our human experience because it is the only thing that is real. 

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