The story of the brick wall – and what it tells us about our brains

I have frequently written about how our brains are wired to focus on the negative or to see the negative among many good things. In fact, I recently wrote about a hypothetical situation which exemplifies this phenomenon: 

"Imagine standing in a room with 10 other people, 9 of whom are holding things you desire in life: health, wealth, friendships, etc. Now imagine the 10th person is pointing a gun at you. Who do you look at? One might say "of course, the guy is holding a gun", but that's exactly the point. As humans, we are unconsciously programmed for survival. That's why our brain is wired to identify threats, danger and negative things in our environment and that's why thinking positively requires an extra effort."

Yesterday then I got to sit down with one of my best friends from high school. We've known each other for about 15 years now, and it’s a tradition for us to come together each winter and chat for hours and hours. We not only review the year, but we also discuss it philosophically.

And as we were talking about the importance of focusing on the good things in our lives, my friend came up with another hypothetical example that really resonated with me. It’s basically saying the same message as my example above, but for whom that example above was too abstract, the following one might take the point home. It seems to be some Chinese fable, so I apologize for butchering the actual story… 

There was a farmer who was building a wall with 100 brick stones that he had available. He worked tirelessly and orderly, and finished the wall the same day. He then took a few steps back and realized that one of the bricks in the wall wasn’t even. He became upset with himself and couldn’t stop looking at that one uneven brick in the wall. At the same time, another farmer came by and asked why the farmer was so upset about his wall. He then pointed out the uneven brick, to which the visiting farmer responded: why do you beat yourself up over one uneven brick if you could celebrate yourself for the 99 bricks that are straight?  

Honestly, I am no different than this farmer. I, too, would be obsessively upset with that one uneven brick and have it spoil the joy of having done everything else right. I joke that the German in me has an eagle eye for spotting mistakes, discrepancies and asymmetries.

Yet this is so wrong and it only demonstrates the inner works of our brains. Now I am not saying that this is how it is and that we should accept it. But I hope that both these examples expose the (mal-)functioning of our default thinking. Only if we understand its flaws, we can consciously work on resolving them.

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