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Critical Writing

Your Brain is Your Problem

Sofia Pontén

“The brain loves habits because they conserve energy. Every day, the brain takes in all kinds of experiences and, based on those, makes numerous assumptions about the environment, which it uses as processing filters to make tacit judgments and behavior choices, most of which are outside of awareness. If there’s no obvious environmental exception to the string of assumptions underlying a given behavioral impulse, we act without conscious thought, emotion, or perception of the action.”
– Steven Stosny, The Secret to Breaking Out Of Our Most Destructive Habits, 2013

To read the news you need a certain amount of trust. A certain amount of belief that someone else’s internal system is functioning just like, or better than, yours. You have no choice but to trust yourself. It’s vital for you to trust your own internal systems and devices, although they have great potential for error and irrationality, because they are yours. You are the only thing you got.

You also trust this flawed system of yours because you are used to it. You know, logically, that it can malfunction, break down and that it will, in due time, start to decompose. But you’d rather stay tuned and keep trusting it, than start over from scratch. You trust it like you trust your favorite journalist at your favorite news station, your favorite newspaper or your favorite fortuneteller. You question it at times. And you might slip, cheat, let go of your usual source, fool around, take a leap of faith, let yourself get lost to see what else is out there. But you’re not inclined to do so. You’re inclined to follow the patterns of your brain.

“Researchers describe habits as a series of conditioned responses. By adulthood, most emotional responses and behavioral impulses are conditioned: we think, feel, and behave more or less the same in the same states and social contexts over and over. Habits and the conditioned responses that compose them are processed in the brain in milliseconds, thousands of times faster than conscious decisions. In fact, most of our decisions are made prior to conscious awareness, governed more by habit than deliberate choice. Substituting power for value—perhaps the easiest and most destructive habit we can acquire.”
– Steven Stosny, The Secret to Breaking Out Of Our Most Destructive Habits, 2013

Science seems obsessed with patterns. The patterns in your body, your DNA, the structure of the universe, the anti-patterns of quantum physics. Patterns, regularity and the unspectacular route in which the planets are constantly circling around us are the everyday stuff, the non-headline things that hardly ever excite us, unless something slightly new comes along. Still, patterns are not boring to us. Rather, patterns are just what we need to let our imagination roam free. A known pattern is the ultimate surface onto which we may project endless fantasies of everything we consider less possible.

Every day, there is news. To serve the brain, news is always presented in the same format. The same amount of news, same news hour, same number of segments and interludes, same size of columns and ads, same thickness of the paper. Almost exactly the same number of letters. Dryly read headlines or entertainment with footnotes. The simple format of objectivity forms a pattern where we can easily fill the gaps ourselves. Here are the facts, here’s what happened, here’s what’s now. Now, add to that what you want. At times, confusingly alike commercials, news provides the narrative that holds things together, at perfect arms-length. A day is no day without news. We can trust the news like we can trust that night will fall and from time to time, so will stars.

“He learned too, that when confounded by the extremes of life – whether good or bad – people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.”

– Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife, 2011

When the early astrologers began looking to the sky for answers, what made sense to them was to give the planets and constellations human qualities. A dozen characteristics were equally handed out to the heavenly bodies as they were ceaselessly making their way around the planet, to make the everyday pattern of life seem less fatuous.

Research shows that there are two disjunctive ways one may react to the news of being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Some people don’t want to know anything about what is going on in their bodies. Not what, how or when. They turn it off. Others want to know everything. What is and will be happening, what it means, what they can do and, sometimes, when. They’re asking for their time of departure.

My father is an anesthesiologist, a specialist in pain, and for the last ten years he has worked in palliative care. At times he gets the question of how much time there is left. There is no answer to this question. Each body and life on different orbits, going different places at different speeds. Many expect him to give it to them straight. It seems reasonable to think that he knows. That he can see into the future. He uses his years of compiled knowledge on the human body and tells them that there is no certain answer to this specific question, other than that it will happen.

I work as an astrologer for a Swedish teen magazine. Over 20 000 readers a week visit my site to read about eclipses and the planets’ movement through the constellations. They talk to me and I answer their every question about absolutely anything. Often it’s “when will I find love?” Many of my readers think there’s a natural time frame to this never-ending quest. It seems reasonable to think that I know. That I can see into the future. I can’t. What I do is I use traditional astrology tools to tell them all I know for certain – that I don’t know, but that the planets are in motion. That things will happen.

Only by looking at history, can we see the pattern that is the future. My dad listens to his patients lament about pain. Just talking about it sometimes reduces it. I listen to people telling me stories of heartbreak and worries for the coming spring, summer, year, lifetime. By vaguely referring to the moon and its phases, I reassure them. I let them know – something is coming, but we don’t know what. My dad says – it is coming, but we will help you. Information soothes. Information means you’re not alone.

“Form is just the technical pursuit of time.”
– Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics Of Disappearance, 1980

The news present a way to stay connected and is by definition present. Do you even remember the headlines from what happened a year ago? Post hoc ergo propter hoc, after this, therefore because of this? Because Saturn was in retrograde on February 11th 2011 Mubarak had to resign due to protests at Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt. On November 6th, 2012, as the sun in Scorpio met Jupiter in Gemini, the president of the US, Barack Obama, was reelected. But, Mercury went retrograde that same day in Sagittarius. One could easily suspect that this is not entirely unconnected to why Angela Merkel, shortly after a lunar eclipse in Aries, found out she had been spied on by the US for more than three years on October 23rd 2013, only one year later. It should come as no surprise that Mercury went retrograde in Scorpio on that very day. The consequence of knowing is not knowledge. Do you know your news or do they know you?

I made an easy formula for you:

a photo of formula
a photo of formula

And if that doesn’t help, you can always turn the leaves to the back of the daily paper, as the first or last resort, where my fellow colleagues and I will try to shed light on your life. We’ll tell you good news, like that Neptune has moved into Pisces and will remain there for the next 12 years. Or bad news, like that Saturn is returning and making it hard for you and everyone you know right now. But that better times are coming. Because Saturn will always be returning, circling your mind as the sun circles our calendar. Just keep looking out for the eclipses of your brain, where habit is broken and trust just might emerge.

About the artist

Sofia Pontén