I recently watched an excellent Ted Talk by Yuval Noah Harari about the unintended consequences of technology and big data. It begged some interesting questions: How well do you know yourself? Do you have a good understanding of your human operating system? Are your heart and mind susceptible to being hacked?
Fear, hate, vanity, desire – all of our unexamined emotions – are vulnerable to manipulation. This is not news. Psychologists have been exploring this idea for decades. Your feelings can be used to sell you something – or to point you toward a particular belief or course of action – or to turn you away from it.
Many of us operate on autopilot, reacting to our emotions as if they were facts. We all love the idea of following our hearts and listening to our guts, but examining evidence and thinking things through rationally takes hard work. Many of us aren’t even aware that there is a difference between a thought and an emotion.
Unfortunately, our ignorance in these matters becomes the source of much of our suffering. If we don’t have a basic understanding of our inner workings, how can we make wise decisions? Instead, we abdicate choice to the stormy winds of our baser instincts. If there is such such a thing as free will, we miss any chance of exercising it.
Harari stated, “Once you have a system that can decipher the human operating system, it can predict human decisions, and it can manipulate human desires and human feelings.” Then he made some grim predictions that sounded pretty reminiscent our current political climate in the US. He said, “If somebody can manipulate your emotions effectively, democracy will become an emotional puppet show.”
Nobody likes bad news, and as Guy Raz pointed out, “Prophets are rarely rewarded. In fact, they’re usually disliked, even when they’re right.” Rather than shooting the messenger, what if we endeavored to understand the human operating system a little better. Might we employ mindfulness in service of understanding our own habits and patterns? Mindfulness can inoculate us against higher reason being hijacked by powerful emotions.
The practice of mindfulness increases our ability to recognize emotions for what they are – passing phenomena of the body and mind. We see that they are merely signals asking us to take a closer look. Our daily practice gives us the space to investigate and see experiences more clearly – less clouded by the biases and residues of our regrets and worries, preferences and dislikes.
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, the Wise Mind is the intersection of emotion and reason. According to the Dalai Lama, “Heart-Mind well-being refers to creating a balance between educating the mind and educating the heart.” We can learn to live according to the Wise Mind or Heart-Mind, rather than being manipulated by the amygdala. When we understand and accept the interconnection between thoughts and emotions and the role they play in determining our behavior, we are more likely to respond in ways that promote happiness and decrease suffering for ourselves and others.