Why Are Individual Humans Complex?

My thinking is “out-of-the-box”; my behavior is distinctly conservative. How can that be? I am an irrepressible punster; an original problem-solver; an unorthodox thinker. Conversely, I dress conservatively, follow rules and the law to the letter, have never used any drugs (or even smoked cigarettes) – in short, my actions are very “yekke” (German for a stickler). What accounts for people being so “inconsistent”?

This is not about “me” as Sam. I am simply using myself as someone representative of most of humanity in general. The question is: why are people so “complicated”, even “contradictory”?

Obviously, every person is “complex” in a different way. Some are conservative thinkers but act radically. Others are “off-beat” in one area of life but quite “straight” in other areas. Still others stick to all the social rules of the game in their lifestyle, but deep-down dream of other ways of living. The combinations are almost endless.

Why should this be? The question itself is interesting because one can easily turn it around: why would we think otherwise? The answer to that is the fact that when we look at almost all other species in the animal kingdom, we find a conservative regularity; birds don’t crawl, snakes don’t fly, ants have no individuality, and so on. Their behavior seems to be “wholistic” in nature (and in Nature). If we too are part of the natural world, why should we be different (from other species – and most important, from other humans)? But we are.

What makes us different (in both directions) is “culture”, i.e., the ability to communicate with each other and expand our knowledge of the natural world and each other. Over the eons, this enabled us to sustain ourselves without having to find food non-stop (anthropologists estimate that hunter-gatherers “worked” only about 3-4 hours a day), leaving ample time for “leisure”. Back then that probably meant telling stories around the campfire; creating ornaments; etc. In short, broadening our horizons – with new physical artifacts and also novel thoughts, intellectual ideas, and perspectives. Still later, we started expanding our social horizons – villages, towns, cities, states, empires – and that led to markedly different ways of living and thinking, as greater human density meant greater intellectual cross-pollination. Ultimately, we spanned (and communicated/traded across) the entire globe. As opposed to homo sapiens, African tigers don’t “talk” to Bengali tigers; they each stay mostly in their own habitat, and if there are any behavioral differences between these two “cousin species” (based on climatic, environmental and topographical differences) they won’t transfer one to the other, even if by chance they do meet up.

From a physical standpoint, humans look pretty much the same: two eyes, two ears, and so on. The real difference is found in our brain that has two main functions: consciously thinking thoughts and unconsciously controlling most bodily functions (you don’t usually think to breathe and certainly not to keep your heart beating). It’s conscious thought that makes all the difference – even to the extent that, for example, people born without arms have incredibly dexterity in their toes; the brain simply finds another “outlet” to do what the body needs to do!

However, what truly makes the human brain stand out is its multifaceted elements. It might look like one 3-pound piece of wet meat, but the human brain is actually a modular machine with numerous parts, each of which works on a different aspect of our “reality”. There are sections for receiving and interpreting inputs from the external world: perception; other parts do the rational thinking; an important sector runs our emotions; then there’s a section that filters thoughts and emotions so that not everything we feel or think comes out of our mouth.

It is here that we return to the original question: how can people be so different? Easy: one section of the brain does not necessarily have to be consistent with another. There are people so emotional that their rational side gets lost; others whose rational thought suppresses their emotions; still other humans whose perceptual apparatus works in weird ways (look up “synesthesia”: https://www.healthline.com/health/synesthesia); and so on. The various permutations and combinations of our brain’s “modules” are almost endless – ergo, people’s thoughts and behaviors differ widely.

The irony in all this is that we tend to judge a person by externalities: how good looking/pretty s/he is, how tall, their skin color, muscles, body size (lithe or heavy), etc. But the real “action” (insofar as differences are concerned) hide hidden away within our skull.

“Hold on!” you are probably asking: what about that “culture” mentioned earlier? Are people different because of their brain biology or because of their social environment: parental upbringing, formal education, peer socialization etc? The answer is “both”. However, we do not come into this world as a tabula rasa on which society can “write” whatever it wants to form our personality; we start out with a particular brain in all its complex modularity. Our social environment can indeed “mold” that brain to an extent, but such an influence is severely restricted by the particular biology of the baby’s (and growing adolescent’s) brain. Scientists are still arguing about the degree of Nature vs Nurture, but no one doubts that both are important in what makes me “me”.

In short, you probably know several “weird” people. But they’re not actually strange; rather, they are as complex as you are – just in different ways, and it’s not always easy for you (or anyone) to understand what makes that person tick. It’s only relatively easy to understand ourself: if you want to know why “you” are a complex person, first look in the mirror (at your head), and then go outside and survey your social environment. Given the innumerable elements that go into making “you” you, it’s actually pretty surprising that you actually are at least somewhat similar to other people! So try focusing more on how other individuals are similar to you, and less on how they’re different. We’re all “different” from each other in some ways, but that’s precisely what makes us all similar: we’re complex humans.

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