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Context context context  
your late developing pre-frontal cortex

The pre-frontal cortex is the most cognitive and logical part of our brain. It is responsible for thinking through all our mot difficult decisions. But did you know that your pre-frontal cortex only develops fully in our mid-twenties? 

In your heads, some of you are already internally judging, wow no wonder teenagers are the way they are. But there's a good reason why the "smartest" part of our brain has a longer runway to develop.

And it has far less to do with "smarts" as we generally think about.

Rather, it is because the social context that we encounter every day of our lives is incredibly complex. The same exact action can carry many different meanings. And interpreting the meaning wrongly can mean putting ourselves in negative positions.

Our brains need time and experience to figure it out. Let's look at some examples:

Image by Sharon McCutcheon

Let's start with payments. 

Everyday, we pay many strangers to perform services for us. We pay folks to prepare our food, to the drivers of our transport, to companies that provides us with entertainment, to the army of civil servants that keeps the country running.

Here's a question. If we pay strangers to do things for us, why don't we pay people we know and love when they do the same?

Why do we not pay our mom when she cooks us a meal? Or our dad when he gives us a lift somewhere? Or when our friends help us with something we can't manage on our own?

Here we see the complexity of context. Payment can be the greatest respect for a service, rewarding the effort and skill with a monetary value.

However, payment can also be the greatest disrespect to a person, because you assign a monetary value to an emotional relationship. 

With enough experience, we get better and better at understanding different nuances of social context. Say you're buying something from a store-owner that you have known for a long time, and you were short of 10 cents.The friendly store-owner tells you, don’t worry, it’s nothing. But you insist, and you go to another store to change money so that you have right change to pay for what you bought. You paid the store-owner the right amount. But even though you have avoided short-changing the store-owner, you might have hurt him in the deepest way, by devaluing his goodwill, and denying him the chance to do something for you.

Paying the right amount sounds like the obvious thing for us to do. Yet, sometimes, it might not be the right thing to do? There is no genetic code or specific intelligence that tells us when something that seems obviously right can be the wrong answer. We need to experience it for ourselves, and to build our ability to assess different social contexts.


Image by Constantin Wenning

Another seemingly obvious act - a handshake.

We know what this means.
A handshake is the beginning of trust, a positive first meeting.
It could even be an unspoken word of honour, 2 parties committing to something with absolute certainty.

Or it could be something mundane, a perfunctory act that 2 people do just because... that's what people do. It really has no meaning, just going through the motions.

Or it could be the start of the deepest betrayal, a conniving plan built on the facade of trust, where the handshake is the first block laid down in a most elaborate trap. 

Image by Jongsun Lee

We pay top dollar for the skill of top chefs, who combines all sorts of different ingredients in the right proportion, cooks for just the right amount of time, and completes it with beautiful presentation.

So can you imagine if we had to fork out large sums of money for a meal where the chef does none of the above? Where the food is raw and uncooked, and has no other ingredients and no other preparation?

Yes, we will. As sashimi places around the world will attest.

In most circumstances, we want a chef that actually cooks. But on some situations, we can accept exceptions, like a chef that "just" slices, albeit with great skill



nazi pow.jpg

And perhaps the most relevant and striking example:

Humans can have a very complicated relationship with violence.  

Violence can manifest in different ways.
We can commit an act of violence by deliberately and viciously putting down someone in front of others, preying on their weakness and crushing their self-belief. Or we could engage in actual physical violence, swinging our fists at others repeatedly, aggressively, until blood is drawn, and then celebrating our dominance. 

Yet sometimes, violence is nothing more than pulling a trigger.
Sometimes, violence is nothing more than merely pressing a button.

Sometimes, violence is merely choosing to look the other way.

In one instance, our heart rates are through the roof, our blood is boiling, and our blood pressure reach new heights, and on the other, it's just a job, just an order, just indffierence. 

This is then further complicated by our judgment of violence. Most of the time, most of us generally reject violence. As you are reading this, you probably think it is usually better to talk things out instead of getting into a fistfight. We gear towards more humane punishment for criminal offenders. And we get upset when we see the violence against animals.

And yet when it is the right type of violence, we absolutely love it. 

We are eager to watch sports or movies where the "right guys" deal out the "right type" of violence.

In one instance, when someone pulls the trigger it is an appalling act of violence. In another, it is an act of heroism - that person is pulling the trigger to keep me safe from the enemy. We applaud the bravery and we award medals of honour. We might even vote for regimes that provide us with the "right type of violence". 

Except the "enemy" is also thinking the same thing about the soldiers on his side. 

We seem to have ea problem with violence. but only if it is the violence we don't want to see. When it is the right kind, we love it. 

The same action can have drastically different meanings, depending on who is performing it, when it is performed, and why it is performed, and how it is perfomed.

|||   It is not by accident that the most rational and cognitive part of our brain takes the longest to develop. It is also the part of the brain that is the least shaped by genes, and the most shaped by experience.


There is no gene that can code for any of these, We need to learn about social context through observation and experience. And it takes time to figure all of this out.

While solving for the theory of everything, getting to mars, and understanding how te brain works are some of our toughest cognitive challenges, equally so are some of our people challenges. Think about the most difficult moments in your life. Inevitably, some of them have to do with social context, how to interpret and respond to people in different settings. And this requires more than emotions it requires cognition. 


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