Thursday, September 20, 2007

Which Should You Trust More - Your Head or Heart?

This year the Great American Think-Off solicited essays on which we should trust more, our heads or our hearts. Here is my answer to this question:

If you are a typical human being, you should generally trust your head more than your heart. This is due to the fact that few of us have achieved a degree of empathy that exceeds our lofty (from a terrestrial perspective) intellectual capacity. Yet, as I will endeavor to explain, this is what must happen for us to be able to consistently trust our hearts more than our heads.

To appreciate why this is, we must first look at the nature of trust. I see trust as simply the belief that something is what it appears to be. Trust represents the perception that there are no divergent intentions hidden in its object. It is not the presence of a deviating intent, but the effort to hide it that is the basis of mistrust. If people admit to their underlying objectives, they are trustworthy to the extent that the admission is accurate. For instance, if I tell you that the large wooden horse I am leaving for you is full of soldiers, intent on killing or enslaving everyone on your city, this revelation renders my efforts trustworthy, if not benign.

Our trustworthiness is a reflection of our selflessness. This is evident in the fact that to merit trust total we must give it without reservations. It is our concern for some aspect of our wellbeing that causes us to be less trusting. This is because the more self-centered we are, the more focused we are on what we feel we have to lose and thus the less trusting we will be. Where this occurs, there is an increasing probability that our actions will contain concealed objectives that favor or at least protect the self upon which we are centered. Whether or not we actually have a hidden agenda in a given case is irrelevant since it is the selfishness-induced probability that we do that defines how untrustworthy we are.

In this context, whether the head or heart is more trustworthy becomes a question of which is less self-centered. To answer this let us now consider the nature of the “head” and the “heart”. I regard the head as our outwardly focused reasoning abilities that produce the observations, ideas and rational thoughts that represent our view of the world around us. I see the heart as our inwardly focused emotional faculties, which generate the moods, feelings and intuitions that reflect our perception of our internal state.

Initially the head sees the world as an incomprehensible collection of seemingly unrelated phenomena. It advances beyond this stage by reaching out into its surroundings and creating the extrinsic connections that we call knowledge. In doing so, the head renders its world more comprehensible. We perceive this intellectual advancement as increasing understanding.

In the beginning the heart sees its possessor as the only truly significant being. It matures beyond this phase by looking within itself and seeing the hearts of others, thus creating the intrinsic connections that we call love. This arrangement allows the heart to increasingly be able to see the world from the perspectives of others. We regard such emotional maturation as increasing empathy.

Because the heart is inwardly focused, its perspective is initially almost completely selfish (as the caregiver of a typical infant or toddler can confirm). By contrast, since the focus of the head is the world around it, its earliest outlook is less self-centered than that of the immature heart. This selfless focus is why it is that, until the role of the observer was expanded by quantum mechanics and postmodernism, our greatest rational thinkers tended to underestimate how much our uniqueness shapes our perception of the world.

As the human heart becomes more capable of adopting the perspectives of others, it can attain a degree of selflessness comparable to that of the head. At this point, the head and heart are equally trustworthy. If its empathy continues to increase, the selflessness of the human heart can exceed that of the head, rendering the former the more trustworthy.

As an adult human male I have observed that we are rarely inclined to trust our hearts because the biotic and societal influences that define “manhood” tend to constrain the development of our empathy. A human male is generally considered “less of a man” if he can be influenced by the “mere” feelings of others. By contrast, complementary influences encourage human females to be more open to the feelings of others. This promotes the growth of their empathy that provides women with less self-centered hearts that are generally more trustworthy than those of men.

Yet the typical woman still cannot consistently trust her heart more than her head. This is because among humans, the exceptionally intuitive state in which our hearts are generally more trustworthy than our highly developed heads requires an inward focus so profound that it blurs the distinction between the self and others. Such great empathy was arguably achieved by the founders of our great spiritual traditions and other less renowned but equally remarkable individuals. But the evident rarity of such people among us means that you are probably not one of them. If that is the case, your heart has not matured to the point where you are justified in consistently trusting it more than your head.

1 comment:

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