Here is a challenge: thinking back on all the people you have passed by today, how many do you actually remember? I would bet good money that even though you may have crossed paths with hundreds or even thousands of people today (certainly if, like me, you have been moving through a bustling metropolis like Toronto), you can only remember just one or two new faces, if any at all!
Our primitive brain, a collection of our oldest inherited neural modules designed to stimulate us to approach the most likely rewards around us and avoid risks to our survival, is also designed only to bring to our attention those people who look like a friend, an enemy or a potential sexual partner. And as for the rest? Well, the primitive brain simply erases them causing us to look straight through them.
Nothing wrong with that. It is a great system for only spending our energy on enacting strategies that balance the most efficient gain of benefits with the avoidance of risks. But the decision making criteria for these unconscious choices we make are deeply rooted in some hard wired theories we all share about what opportunity and what cost most likely look like, some of which are, in evolutionary terms about 500-million years old. It's a pretty ancient system that continues to motivate our behaviours in our very modern world.
This primitive and unconscious choice system keeps us in a comfortable place. Choosing behaviours outside of this can feel very uncomfortable. Notice how, right now you the reader are comfortable enough to allow your head to occupy the space of this article. Take a look around you...no risks and no better rewards...reading this feels quite pleasant because you can be indifferent to your immediate surroundings, including all the other humans in it -- so says the instinct of your primitive brain.
Whilst we can be happy to feel comfortable enough right now spending time focused intently on this article, at the same time what great opportunities are you missing out on by not engaging with the real live people around you who you are impulsively indifferent to? I understand that you don't feel naturally compelled to start any kind of significant interaction with them. To go and start a conversation with anyone of them might feel a bit awkward and unpleasant, if not a little fake or dishonest, particularly in the guise that you have "shown up" in as you focus in on this blog.
Your nature tells you that those around you right now do not pose any clear and present threat to your survival, nor will they bring you any treats; however, if we were to investigate with a more open conscious curiosity our unconscious choice to discount those others, our gut-feeling would quite likely prove to be short-sighted. This process though could take time and our primitive decision making equipment likes to make quick, comfortable decisions: ones that take fractions of a second to get you to a place of satisfaction rather than minutes or hours, only to find yourself undecided.
So whilst out impulsive reactions and the knock-on actions we take align to the goals of our primitive brain to ensure our survival, they can prove unhelpful as we strive to make choices and draw out of ourselves those counterintuitive behaviours needed to connect with the people that can participate in accomplishing some of the bigger goals.
To this extent I am advocating that we all test and question the assumptions our primitive brain has made to keep us content. In my TEDxToronto 2013 talk at Koerner Hall, September 26, I will be examining how we judge everyone around us unconsciously and by this miss out on some great opportunities. I'll be suggesting that being more adaptable and purposeful in choosing the way we show up with others rather than falling back on our more natural intuitive behaviours, could get us closer to seeing our biggest ideas come to life. I hope you'll join me.
For those not attending this year's TEDxToronto, the event will be streaming live throughout the day on September 26 at TEDxToronto.com.