Rationality vs… Magic?

by , under Newest thoughts

We often think of intuition as being diametrically and functionally opposed to rationality. While rationalization is a logical, organized way of knowing, intuition is an evidence-free, irrational means of acquiring knowledge. But it turns out that rationality and intuition are arguably the same concept. Let’s explore.

Humans are designed to rationalize. We want to find the reasons behind things. For example, when something bad happens the first thing people will do is look for someone or something to blame. We want the events in our lives to have meaning, but, even more than that, we want our own behaviors to make sense.

The entire theory of eightstep me relies on the fact that our left hemisphere operates on linguistic logic — we need a narrative of our lives in order to make sense of our current state of being. Our identities rely on the recollection of specific, important events that have occurred in our lives thus far.  As Bessel van der Kolk says:

“Ordinary memory is essentially social; it’s a story that we tell for a purpose.”

But, this can be a problem, because not all situations are easily contextualized with a story. Sometimes it is very difficult to find a ‘reason’ or a ’cause’ for an event or behavior. The most poignant example of this is traumatic stress: witnessing or experiencing a horrifying event can leave us feeling like there is no reason or rhyme to the world. ‘How could such a thing happen?’ Dr. van der Kolk’s quote continues like this: 

“But there is nothing social about traumatic memory … Reenactments are frozen in time, unchanging, and they are always lonely, humiliating, and alienating experiences.”

He goes on to explain that PTSD and other stress-related disorders create cognitive energy blockages — they prevent sensory experiences from becoming memory. When this happens people can get caught in ‘flashbacks’ of their experiences. These are basically internal re-enactments of a traumatic or stressful event that seem completely real. As Dr. van der Kolk explains, these post-traumatic recollections of stressful events occur because the visceral, sensory experiences that occurred at the time still haven’t been processed and sequenced. In other words, the sights, sounds, smells, feels, and tastes that occurred during the trauma/stress need to be placed into a story, with an overarching theme and a logical beginning, middle, and end. This is very difficult for trauma survivors (and people who experience stress in general… so pretty much everyone) because in order to achieve this level of organization we need to rationalize the experience. This requires a great deal of conscious attention and effort to organize the details so that we can make meaningful and descriptive connections between the sensations, thoughts, and overarching events that occurred (or may still be occurring).

Sometimes there simply isn’t a ‘logical’ reason why things happen the way they do. My last post on synchronicity discusses this concept of ‘coincidences’ — two events that seem to be inextricably and causally linked despite an apparent lack of a rational connection. But even when there is no discernible arrow of causality linking events to a bigger story, we can’t help but rationalize. It is literally the only thing we consciously do. Our decisions and behaviors are pre-planned, and we only become aware of what we’ve decided after we’ve made the decision. This time lag is absolutely astounding — it can take up to 10 seconds to be aware of what we’ve just decided to do. Everything in our conscious experience is a story we rationalize to ourselves. But the story and the conscious experience itself happen long after the actual events and decisions have happened.

We can see powerful evidence of these Stalinesque (after-the-fact, or post hoc) revisions of conscious awareness in the form of ‘impossible rationalizations‘ — behavioral narratives that we all construct that simply cannot be true. As it turns out, most people will actually rationalize a decision that they never made. Dr. Antonio Damasio explains it like this: 

“The left cerebral hemisphere of humans is prone to fabricating verbal narratives that do not necessarily accord with the truth.”

Whether or not these verbal narratives are true representations of what really happened, we have no choice but to believe them. The lies we tell ourselves are the hardest to see through. But our verbal narratives are even more than lies we tell ourselves — who we are, what we do, and how we identify are completely and totally determined by the story we construct of our lives.

It’s okay to be concerned by the revelation that we are the story-tellers, not the decision-makers. But don’t worry, it is totally universal and normal to rationalize your decisions after the fact. It does not imply a lack of free will like you might expect, but that’s a whole different discussion. For now, let’s get back to intuition.

If you can incorrectly rationalize your own behaviors, how is this different from intuition? The ‘feelings’ we get aren’t generally considered as evidence, but they are the entire basis for believing and understanding our own thoughts and actions. As stated above, all of our memories are just sequentially organized sensations and feelings. When we rationalize it is literally an extended form of intuition. Just like velocity is speed with a direction, rationalization is intuition with an arrow of causality assigned.

If rationality is a concept so closely associated with intuition, how can they be opposites like we often assume? In my opinion, the true opposite of rationality and intuition is magic: an event or behavior that we cannot rationalize. It is something so miraculous and unexplainable that we don’t even feel the need to determine a cause or reason. Many people might call this ‘unmoved mover’ something like ‘God,’ or the ‘supernatural.’ But these imply concepts that we can’t ever know about. That is simply not the case. In fact, we perform acts of ‘magic’ all the time.

Again, Antonio Damasio:

“Our memory of the here and now also includes memories of the events that we constantly anticipate — what I like to call memories of the future.”

We are all constantly producing simulations of anticipated futures. The sum total of these simulations acts like a probability map to give us an idea of what could happen in the future — quite literally future vision. Now, this probability map isn’t a certainty, it is very fuzzy and imprecise. But our memories are also very fuzzy and ill-defined. When Bessel van der Kolk says that memory is social, he doesn’t just mean it brings us together. Memory is literally created and molded by our social interactions.  Our imaginations have been honed by evolution to the point where we can simulate extraordinarily unlikely events and things. I would come up with an example, but I bet you can come up with your own examples. In fact, I bet once you start imagining unlikely stuff you can keep going for as long as you want! We are designed to perform this type of creative simulation.

We can see this very clearly in our dreams. They seem like total nonsense sometimes, but they are always strongly infused with meaning, and dream interpretation is frequently thought of as predictive tool.

I will return to this idea of ‘rational magic’ and superpowers in future posts. For now, it seems quite clear that rationality is nothing more than an extension of intuition. Perhaps if you start listening to the improbable twinges of instinct that arise in your body you might find you have magical powers too…

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