I sometimes feel like there are two versions of myself. Good Helen and Bad Helen. Good Helen is kind to others, appreciates beauty in the everyday, is immensely curious, hopeful, self-disciplined and likes to ponder the state of the world and how she can contribute to make it better. Bad Helen, on the other hand – is unmotivated, pessimistic, could give a crap about other people (especially those she doesn’t know), selfish and sometimes behaves like a cantankerous old man. When I wake up, I’m not sure which version of myself I’ll get that day, though I’m pretty aware these two voices are always hanging around somewhere. And depending on which voice I listen to, I make certain decisions and take certain actions, some of which benefit Future Helen, and some of which don’t.
Today is a hopeful kind of day. A ‘Good Helen’ day. I’m pondering about the state of humanity, and how I can best use my strengths, skills, passions to contribute to this world. Specifically, I’m pondering – what do I want to do after my PhD? When Good Helen is around, I want to use her focus and self-discipline towards a goal that is meaningful, not only to her but for humanity. (Idealistic, I know). Of course, given such meaningful goals, Bad Helen is bound to turn up too sometimes. When that happens, I’ll invite her to the party but I’ll probably make her sit in a corner and twiddle her thumbs. Yeah, she can hang out, but no, she can’t touch the music or talk to any important people.
In Kelly McGonigal‘s talk “The Willpower Instinct“, she relays that neuroscientists have long said, “though we only have one brain, we actually have two minds. We are completely different people depending on which mind if active or which systems of the brain are active”. Thus, the ‘ideal you’ competes with the ‘less-than-ideal you’. McGonigal presents some fascinating research on how simple factors such as how much sleep you get, what food you eat, your goals and expectations, or how critical versus compassionate you are to yourself, can significantly impact which version of ‘you’ shows up that day.
The same ideas are discussed in “The Evolving Self” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock. Csikszentmihalyi states that human beings evolved from “earlier mammalian roles” such as “a tiny shrew who kept stealing dinosaur eggs ~250 million years ago”, to the homo sapiens today who “started walking the African plains about four million years ago. […] We now know that “94% of our genetic material overlaps with the chimpanzees”, where we have evolved to have “a thin overlay of tissue stretched over a solid reptilian brain”. While our reptilian brain controls our body’s vital functions (heart rate, breathing, body temperature) along with the limbic brain (emotions, value judgements), what about that “thin overlay of tissue”? According to Rock, that’s our thinking brain – the brain thats responsible for our “conscious interactions with the world”, serving executive functions such as “understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing, and inhibiting”. This part of the brain (called the “prefrontal cortex”) was the last major brain region to develop during human evolutionary history, occupying a mere 4-5% of the volume of the rest of the brain. Yet, it is this part of the brain takes on the role of “self-reflective consciousness”, an achievement unique to our species (Csikszentmihalyi). As Csikszentmihalyi writes, humans are “thinking beings”, who in our consciousness, can “reflect the immensity of the universe”.
So there you have it. [Good You vs. Bad You] == [Ideal You vs. Less-than-ideal-You] == [Instinctual reptilian brain vs. Evolved prefrontal cortex]. So the question is, what will we do with this information? As Csikszentmihalyi states, “at this point in our history, it should be possible for an individual to build a self that is not simply the outcome of biological drives and cultural habits, but a conscious, personal creation. [That self] will enjoy life in all its forms, and gradually become aware of its kinship with the rest of humanity, and with life as a whole.”
On the other hand, as Csikszentmihalyi later states, “Birds and lemmings cannot do much damage expect to themselves, whereas we can destroy the entire matrix of life on the planet. […] We still have an awfully long way to go before we can overcome what is innate in our behaviour”. As the human presence becomes ever more central in the natural world, “we realize that being at the cutting edge of evolution on this planet means we can either direct our life energy toward achieving growth and harmony, or waste the potentials we have inherited, adding to the sway of chaos and destruction” (Csikszentmihalyi). He poignantly asks, “Will our race go out, either with a bang or a whimper, because we can’t figure out what life is all about?”
I’m not sure. I have no idea what will happen in the next 50, 100, 200, 500 years. Will we still be here? What will humanity look like then? Will there be more remarkable figures like Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Marie Forleo, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Elizabeth Gilbert, Brene Brown, Adam Grant, Rob Bell? More organizations doing amazing things like Kiva Loans, Against Malaria, Cuso International?
So here’s the thing, dear readers. We only have one life and someday our limited time here will be up. How do you want to spend this time? Which version of you do you want to show up? On your deathbed, will you feel proud of how you spent your gift of life?
I’ll leave you now with one of my favourite quotes, from Paul Bowles’s book “The Sheltering Sky”: “Because we do not know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you cannot conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 1994. The Evolving Self: Psychology for the Third Millennium
Kelly McGonigal. Google Talks, “The Willpower Instinct“.
David Rock. 2009. Your Brain At Work.