Is What You Think What You Are?

Or Only Who You THINK You Are?

We’ve been told by career or aptitude assessment experts for years that there are various types of “intelligence” that people tend to gravitate towards throughout their lives. These include such bents as “artistic/creative” intelligence, “logical reasoning” intelligence and “kinesthetic” intelligence. Depending on which you gravitate towards, ideally they say you would be best suited to be working as a graphic designer, an accountant or a professional basketball player as your brain is uniquely configured to excel in one or more of these types of arenas...

But how well does this limited pigeon-holing really define the human mind? If we have brains that are focused on unique aspects of living in this way, why don’t intelligent animals seem to have the same division of interests? A giraffe doesn't get to choose whether it wants to paint abstract art for a living or work in the construction industry. A giraffe is just a giraffe, without opposable thumbs.

So we assume that as creatures rank higher on the intelligence-manipulative digits scale, this thinking ability starts to diverge along different lines. Yet even monkeys with hands similar to ours, are just…monkeys, doing their thing in the wild. They're not busy building museums or running marathons to see who is the fastest ape on the block because their career counselor told them that's what they should be doing.

Is personal preference in what we choose to do for work or what we study in school therefore just an affectation of our minds, something chimpanzees have avoided even though they share 98% of our DNA? Is the way our minds function something that is a result of conditioning in childhood more than genetics? Perhaps what we are today is largely just a result of habits we picked up, often involuntarily, as we grew.

As neuro-scientists study and map the brain, they are finding that our abilities and talents aren’t discretely located in individual sections, but tend to overlap into many different regions of the brain. They also talk about a concept known as “neuroplasticity,” which means the brain is much more capable of changing than previously thought, meaning we can actually change the way we think and view the world, if we really want to.

How do we choose to be what we are good at therefore, or to spend our time doing only what we most enjoy? We all grow up being involuntarily conditioned by our environments as minors, with limited free will to do what we want with our lives… The 10,000 hour rule promoted by Michael Gladwell in his books suggest that the more we do one thing, the more hopelessly fixated on it we get (other people start calling us an "expert" at it).

Do you really like throwing a ball around or did you pick up the habit because your big brother didn’t have any friends when you were little, and focused all his attention on playing outdoors with you? Do you “love” to play the piano because you were forced to spend so much time in church with your choir singing sisters (who you liked), around music (that you were forced to like)? Do you like adding up numbers because your dad was a meticulous bookkeeper and the more closely he tracked income and expenses, the better your Christmas presents turned out to be that year?

Our predilections may be entirely based on past experiences and social rewards, not actual hard-wired sections in the brain. That being said, why do we often feel inadequate or guilty for experimenting with different ways of living? Is wanting to be a physicist while working in a cartoon drawing sweat shop (a theme in a Far Side cartoon I found particularly funny years ago) inherently wrong? Or does it mean our brains are telling us through daydreaming that we have far more freedom to choose what we want to do with our lives than we realize?

Actions tend to shape interests as well as the other way around. Research has shown that habits are broken not by force of will but by replacing them with new habits. So if you really do want to be a physicist and are tired of drawing stick men all day…the best way to do it may simply be to start drawing more equations instead, even if you don’t understand them or can’t work out the solutions to them initially. Repetition makes the brain what it is. So why not choose repetition in the things that truly excite you. Its your life, isn’t it?

Just the act of doing something new tends to cement it in our minds as a way to live differently. If you try doing one new thing every day eventually you may discover that the world around you has mysteriously changed to present you with different opportunities. They could be elements of life that you’ve overlooked for years, a new way to live that allows you to discard the old, boring existence you’ve come to loathe in the deep recesses of your routine exhausted brain.

Start working on that scalar-tensor theory problem that's been bouncing around in the back of your mind for ages. Talk your coworker into finishing the whiskers on the talking cat. There's no telling where it all might lead...