Our brain is a maniac of order and control. After all, its mission is to keep us safe, so it has to anticipate possible threats to alert us. For that reason, it looks for patterns everywhere that help it to make sense of the past and foresee the future.
Pareidolias, which consist of interpreting a vague and random stimulus as a recognizable shape, such as when we see an image in the clouds, is an example of our brain’s attempts to look for recognizable patterns and bring some order to chaos.
In everyday life, we also try to find an explanation for what happens to us. We try to understand where the noise that has startled us comes from or why our partner has decided to end the relationship. We have an urgent need to find a logical meaning to what happens to us. However, sometimes we can get caught up in that search for meaning.
The greater the uncertainty, the greater the need to seek an explanation
In 2008, psychologists at the University of Texas designed a series of experiments to test how we respond to uncertain situations. They activated the participants’ sense of insecurity and lack of control and then asked them to immerse themselves in imaginary environments, such as the stock market, or watch static images on television.
They found that people who lacked control were more likely to perceive delusional patterns, such as seeing images in the snow on the television, drawing non-existent correlations in information from the stock market, perceiving conspiracies and developing superstitions.
Interestingly, when the psychologists asked them to perform self-affirmation exercises, the participants calmed down and stopped looking for patterns where they didn’t exist.
These experiments showed that when we feel that we are not in control of our destiny, the brain invents patterns to give us a sense of control that makes us feel more secure. Obviously, it is an illusory security, but when we do not find it, the prospect can be even worse because our brain can get stuck in the loop of searching for meaning.
When analysis leads to paralysis
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps, made the search for meaning his leitmotif. He believed that to overcome adversity we need to find meaning in what happens to us. However, the meaning to which Frankl referred was not necessarily a logical explanation but a personal psychological meaning. The difference may seem subtle, but it is important.
People who try to find an explanation for everything that happens to them fall into a trap: thinking too much. It is common when we lose a loved one, especially if the death was unexpected. The first impulse is to look for an explanation. We tell ourselves that if we can understand what happened, we can get through it. However it is not always so.
Sometimes we can get caught up in the search for that meaning. We can go over a thousand and one times about a detail that will not clarify anything because the truth is that accidents happen and there is not always a logical explanation that can calm us down.
What our mind is looking for is the confidence that comes from control and order. What we are looking for is a linear cause-effect relationship that gives us back the sense of security we lost. But when we face unforeseen changes, what reigns is chaos and unpredictability, so many times the search for meaning leads us to a dead end.
Trying to find an explanation for everything does not always solve problems. If we fall into this trap, we can even confuse thinking with doing. Thus analysis leads to paralysis.
Although it is difficult to accept it, we cannot always find a logical explanation for things. We can’t always find the cause. Sometimes we can only guess, imagine or try to tie up loose ends. In fact, sometimes knowledge – extolled by our society as the highest value – does not even provide comfort, especially when we can do nothing to solve it.
Sometimes that search for meaning just ends up being distressing. Far from helping us accept what happened, it keeps us in a state of denial, rejecting the facts just because they don’t fit our worldview. However, we must not fall into the Hegelian error of thinking that if the theory does not agree with the facts, the worse for the facts. If we do not accept the facts, we will not be able to adapt and the chances that we will suffer or harm ourselves more are greater.
First acceptance, then the search for personal meaning
It’s hard. I know. We feel the need to find an explanation for the behavior of the others and the things that happen to us because in this way we believe that we have some control, that there is some order and logic in the world.
However, there are times when we have to stop thinking and start accepting.
This does not mean that we should take everything for granted and have to be content with the first answers or that we settle into cognitive laziness, but we must make sure that thinking does not go into a loop, being completely unsuccessful.
We have to accept that we cannot understand everything. Although it’s hard. That we will not always find a reasonable explanation that satisfies or comforts us. That things don’t always fit into our world view.
Sometimes, for the sake of our mental balance and mental health, it is better to stop torturing ourselves looking for an explanation. Sometimes we just have to apply radical acceptance. Give us permission to turn the page. Let go of the pain.
At that point, when we have accepted what happened, we can move on to the search for personal meaning. That meaning is not a logical explanation of what has happened, but rather a subjective meaning that allows us to integrate the experience into our life history. It is not the search for causes and motives in the past but rather the search for teaching with a view to the future.
Personal sense is what allows us to move forward. As Frankl says: “Once an old doctor consulted me about severe depression he was suffering from. He couldn’t get over the loss of his wife, who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. How could I help him? What could I tell him? Well, I refrained from saying anything to him and instead blurted out the following question: ‘What would have happened, doctor, if you had died first and your wife had survived you?’ ‘Oh…’, ‘It would have been terrible for her, she would have suffered a lot!’ To which I replied: ‘You see, doctor, you have saved her all that suffering; but now you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her death.’
“He didn’t say anything, but he took my hand and quietly left my office. Suffering ceases to be in a certain way suffering at the moment in which it finds a meaning, such as sacrifice”.
Whitson, J. A. & Galinsky, A. D. (2008) Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception. Science; 322 (5898): 115-117.
Frankl, V. (1979) El hombre en busca de sentido. Editorial Herder: Barcelona.