Posted by: B Gourley | November 10, 2009

Fudoshin: Rewiring the Way We Think and Respond

PET-imageHumans have a substantial capacity to rewire their minds to overcome the pettiness inherent in a mind gone awry, even when the pettiness is evolutionarily hardwired. I’ve seen a fascinating video of an experiment carried out by a primate research center that is telling of just how engrained some of our inclinations are.  In the experiment two Capuchin monkeys are kept in separate but adjacent cages. The experimenter walks up to one of the monkeys and hands it a grape. Now, grapes are apparently like crack to Capuchin monkeys. Needless to say, the monkey devours the grape and is ready for more. Next, taking exacting efforts to duplicate previous actions (control for all alternative explanations being essential to the scientific method) the experimenter picks up a cucumber wedge, walks up to the second monkey(who saw the first monkey get a grape), and hands it the cucumber wedge (Capuchins like cucumbers, but not to the same degree they like grapes). The second monkey eagerly jabs the food into its mouth without actually looking at it, and then does a spit-take as it realizes that it has gotten the shaft.  The action is repeated, and on subsequent occasions the second monkey won’t even take the cucumber wedge. In fact, when the experimenter drops the cucumber, the first monkey reaches through the bars and takes it. The first monkey is now able to enjoy both the grapes and the cucumber wedges because  the second money won’t eat the cucumber out of what we humans might call the “principle of the matter.”

The reason I’ve seen this video on more than one occasion is that this is the kind of behavior that fascinates (and, in some cases, mystifies or even mortifies) economists, and, in completing a Masters degree in Economics, it came up as a relevent topic of lectures and seminars on more than one occasion. One can probably intuitively recognize a similar proclivity in humans without the need for scientific evidence. I will nonetheless point out that there are behavioral economics experiments that result in similar findings consistently in human subjects. There is a construct in game theory called an “ultimatum game.” In the ultimatum game, a “team” of two players is granted an allotment of money – say $10 in $1 bills. The first player gets to determine how the allotment will be divided up, and the second gets to determine whether it is acceptable or not. That is, if the second player does not accept the division, neither player gets anything. Classic economic theory would predict that, unless the second player has good reason to believe he or she will play the same “partner” repetitively so as to be able to “teach” the first player to be fair and, thus, earn a higher expected value over the long run,  the second player should take any positive offer. Of course, in reality, like the Capuchins most people will summarily reject “unfair” offers.

Given the widespread proclivity to enforce fairness that is seen in both humans and lesser primates, it probably stands to reason that this tendency served human-kind well over the centuries. Or put another way, homo sapiens that were more willing to be finicky on principle survived at higher rates than those who were willing to accept the dregs. One can imagine a mechanism by which this works, the competitive impulse is heightened in those unwilling to settle for second best. The question is to what degree does this proclivity serve us today, and, in particular, when exercised as a rule of thumb that is essentially dictated by emotion. Humans have, after all, developed a capacity to rationalize, conceptualize, and strategize to levels unparalleled elsewhere within the animal kingdom. Are we best served by a sort of autonomic response in which treatment perceived as unfair causes a visceral emotional response that we act upon without taking advantage of our advanced capacity to consider the options and develop a well-thought strategic response? 

By now any reader who has gotten this far may be wondering what any of the preceding paragraphs have to do with martial arts. Fudoshin means maintaining a mental state in which one is unmoved by petty vagaries. One becomes imperturbable.  I’ve been reflecting a lot upon how the mind works recently, and how we are sometimes guided by gut level petty reactions rather than by sound reasoning or strategically sound impulses. Yesterday afternoon I caught the tail end of a re-run episode of the History Channel series called Warriors which described Miyamoto Musashi’s duel with Sasaki Kojiro. Musashi showed up late brandishing a makeshift suburito (i.e. a big wooden training sword) in lieu of an actual sword, and, in doing so, managed to infuriate Kojiro (some accounts indicate that Musashi added verbal insults to the contextual insult of being late.) Musashi ended up defeating Kojiro, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that Musashi‘s calm demeanor pitted against Kojiro‘s rage may have made the difference.

As we go about our daily lives, it is astounding how skewed our worldview is by our own conceptions of self. Psychologists have shown that most people consistently credit themselves for the good things they achieve, but are more likely to credit environment and other factors for the success of others. People’s minds imagine offenses that don’t actually exist, and sometimes act upon them. When I hear someone talking about how another person doesn’t like them or is mad at them, I often wonder how the offended person would feel if they knew the probable truth that the other person was indifferent to them and didn’t even give them any thought? A person is the center of his or her own universe, and often people imagine that someone is mad at them because they can’t fathom the truth that they are not even on that person’s radar screen.

I once read that human beings are believed to be the only species that can achieve the same physiological response from thinking about a traumatic event as occurs during the event itself. That is, just thinking about a past argument can give a person the same physical response (e.g. adrenaline dump) as when they were actually arguing. That is how powerful the mind is. Fortunately, humans can also observe their minds, reflect upon where their minds go, and rewire the habitual responses of the mind.


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