“Opportunity favors the prepared mind” Louis Pasteur
Wouldn’t it feel strange if you always found what you were looking for? Aren’t there times that it feels like when you are stuck on an issue and something someone says or something you read or see is exactly what you were looking for.
How lucky are you? But is it luck or something else at play here?
I have written before about how ancient philosophical tenets meet modern thinkers (here and here) and in this occasion modern neuroscience.
Reflecting on these notions, serendipity seems suddenly less influenced by luck and more a matter of statistics.
It appears that Heraclitus (the Dark Philosopher), Louis Pasteur (the French chemist and microbiologist) and Daniel Goleman (the writer of Emotional Intelligence) may have had a lot to share on the subject.
“Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to those that have rude souls” Heraclitus
Heraclitus, the so-called Dark philosopher was a Greek Natural philosopher that lived in the city of Ephesus around the 500 BCE. Most of his work was lost and/or destroyed. We currently have access to only a few fragments of his writings. The most famous phrase attributed to his philosophy is the below:
“Τα Παντα ρει” – “All things pass and nothing stays” (Plato Cratylus 402a = A6)
Apparently, it cannot be proven that he actually wrote this but it pretty well sums up key tenets of his philosophy.
What is of interest for this blog is a lesser known jewel from his fragments, the one that posits that eyes and ears are bad witnesses to those that bear rude souls.
What Heraclitus seems to be suggesting with this tenet is that when we are predisposed to view a situation from a particular perspective we tend to favour a positive or a negative interpretation of stimuli depending on our character, our state of mind and maybe how well we are attuned to ourselves, how well we “know thyselves” (i.e. our “soul”).
Heraclitus was not alone in the view that, the way we interpret things is the key (see here).
For example, imagine you graciously give up your seat on the tram or train (person A) to a person that appears to need it (person B). There may be two responses to this action:
- a positive response may be that you (person A) get a “thank you” based on the acknowledgement of your gracious action (from person B) OR
- a negative response when e.g. person B perceives this action as if someone is thinking less of his/her capabilities i.e. as if person A is putting them down. So, in this example person B chooses to tell off person A in the most ungracious of ways.
I am sure you can reflect and recall a few such examples when the disposition or attitude allows for a polar opposite interpretation of an action.
Reflecting on Heraclitus’ quotation we can also phrase it as follows:
“Eyes and ears are good witnesses to those that have refined souls”
Similarly minded about the usefulness of focus and attitude was Louis Pasteur (French chemist and microbiologist).
Pasteur was very persistent and enormously successful in the fields of vaccination and the prevention of disease, as well as, his invention of “pasteurisation” which is a technique of treating milk and wine to stop bacterial contamination. He always tried to find solutions to problems and break new ground.
He focused on finding solutions and this focus appears to have reaped results as the solutions came to him (combined with hard work of course) resulting to his breakthroughs.
Hence, he articulated:
“Opportunity favors the prepared mind”
The two great thinkers do agree that if one is focused on something e.g. an opportunity, a question, a required result to a problem, it is as if the mind consciously and unconsciously seeks the solutions.
When you set your mind to something you usually find a way to succeed.
Solutions are out there, in the combination of things, the re-engineering of processes. Focused attention is sometimes the missing ingredient.
DANIEL GOLEMAN – How Heraclitus and Pasteur were onto something
For me, all of the above was just quite reasonable empirical deductions towards developing a positive attitude in life until I came across Daniel Goleman’s classic book, Emotional Intelligence.
In it, Goleman describes in layman’s terms the different functions of the parts of the brain and in particular the functions of the Limbic system and the Neocortex. The results are surprisingly revealing in support of both the great thinkers.
A Short History of Brain Development:
There are three stages of evolution in the brain:
- The brainstem (which is the primitive brain) which we share with all other species that may a minimal nervous system. This is where the basic body functions are regulated e.g. breathing.
- The limbic system (from the word limbus which means “ring”). This is built upon the brainstem and is also called the emotional brain g. when you are overwhelmed by craving or fury (“I can’t think straight”) that’s the limbic system taking over. The limbic system refined two essential tools forhomo sapiens a) learning and b) memory. Key structures of the limbic system that do much of the learning and remembering are:
- Amydgala – is the part that does most of the learning and remembering in terms of the emotional flavor of events. The Amygdala is the specialist for emotional matters.
It has been found that if theAmydgala is severed then
- We lose recognition of feeling as well feeling about feelings,
- Lose the urge to compete and cooperate, have no sense of social order.
- Emotion is blunted or absent
- Repository for emotional impressions and memories that we have
known in full awareness
- Hyppocampus – is the part that deals with registering and making sense of
perceptual patterns than with emotional reactions, it provides a keen memory of context (e.g. recognizes the
differing significance of a bear in the zoo than a bear in the
backyard) and retains the dry facts whilst the amygdala retains the emotional flavor e.g. hyppocampus – that is your cousin, amygdala - you don’t like her.
- The Neocortex (also called the thinking brain) evolved as of 100m years ago and is the center that puts together and comprehends what the senses perceive. Strategizing, long-term planning, art, civilization and culture are the successes of the Neocortex.
How do signals get processed?
Sensory signals get processed from the ears and eyes through a structure called the Thalamus, to the Amygdala through a single synapse and at the same time to the Neocortex. The signal reaches the Amydgala at 1/3 of the time it takes to reach the Neocortex. So, the emotional brain begins to respond earlier than the thinking brain.
The usual way for sensory information to be processed is from the eyes and ears through the Thalamus and then to the Neocortex where the signals are put together into objects, as we perceive them. These are then sorted out, recognized for what they are and what they mean. The signal is then sent from the Neocortex to the Limbic system and from there the response is coordinated internally and externally.
The usual way takes precedence if the Amydgala is not aroused by the direct signal for e.g. fear of danger. If the Amydgala is aroused then we instinctively respond to the signals before the Neocortex has a chance to analyse the information.
So, essentially, the Amydgala is a repository for emotional impressions and memories that we have never known about in full awareness.
And this is where it gets very interesting.
LeDoux (Goleman p.18) proposed that the Amydgala’s role in memory explains the “startling experiment in which people acquired a preference for oddly shaped geometric figures that had been flashed at them so quickly that they had no conscious awareness of having seen them at all”.
So, the Amydgala and Hyppocampus, as part of the emotional brain, can be viewed as a subconscious sorting mechanism to the myriad of signals that come through our eyes and ears so, we “choose” to distinguish and pay attention to the ones that are emotionally charged only.
In this way it becomes apparent that if we provide significance and emotional charge to specific things these are registered in the recesses of the Amygdala and the Hyppocampus (in the limbic system) and so, we can distinguish them subconsciously within the sea of signals we encounter everyday.
EXPERIMENT USING “THE EYE CONTACT” DEVICE PROVES THE POINT
As reported in The Guardian’s article “Shopper’s eye view of ads that pass us by” as the result of an experiment in marketing conducted in 2005 in the city of London:
In one 45-minute journey, the average London commuter is exposed to more than 130 adverts, featuring more than 80 different products….. In an entire day, we’re likely to see 3,500 marketing messages. ……The experiment, analysed with the help of ID Magasin, the company which developed the device, highlighted both the extent to which individuals are bombarded by commercial images and how adept most have become at screening out advertising messages. The results of our experiment showed that 99% of adverts make little or no impact.
The marketing messages encountered in a day in a metropolis like Melbourne (my home city) cannot be far from this number. So, out of the thousands of brand cues we encounter we tend to recognise and consciously pay attention to just a handful. The above brain mechanism Goleman analysed is the one that allows us to do so.
So, what we choose to focus on and in general our attitude towards things i.e. on whether we perceive challenges or opportunities, on whether we focus on why something would not work rather than how something could work plays a huge role at the cues that our emotional brain selects to display into our consciousness, the things that help us move forward and solve the challenges we encounter.
A healthy attitude and targeted focus on what matters most is thus, keys to developing a productive lifestyle.