Masterchef Australia is one of my favorite shows. I have faithfully followed the shows for many years. The production quality is fantastic, the participants and the judges love food, and despite it being a competition, the participants genuinely enjoy each other’s success.
I recently read a couple of books that have significantly impacted my feelings about the show and, more importantly, my feelings about how we lead life. If you love Masterchef Australia and want to read about my changed feelings for the show, scroll to the end. Otherwise, get ready for an intellectual journey that changed my life and helped me use neuroscience to understand the wisdom preached in culture for ages.
The Science Behind Emotions and Social Conditioning
Dr. Lisa Feldman Barret is one of the leading neuroscientists globally and would have definitely been an Advaita Vedanta scholar in her past life. She spent the last 25 years studying human emotion by measuring electrical signals that cause your facial muscles to contract to make facial expressions. Her team analyzed hundreds of physiology studies involving thousands of test subjects. In addition, they scanned hundreds of brains and examined every brain imaging study on emotion that has been published in the past 20 years. After all these studies, they came to a resounding conclusion. You may feel that your emotions are hardwired, and they trigger and happen to you. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Lisa’s team found out that human beings don’t have emotional circuits in their brains. In fact, no organism on this planet contains emotional circuits. So what are emotions, really? Emotions are guesses. They are guesses that your brain constructs at the moment where billions of brain cells are working together. Our brains are pattern recognition machines. Dr. Lisa shared this image in a talk, and people automatically started trying to guess the shapes present in these random blogs. The brain was not looking for the truth. It was just looking for patterns seen previously seen and trying to create meaning where none may exist. She summarizes that the brain does come prewired to make some feelings, simple feelings that come from your body’s physiology. So when you’re born, you can make feelings like calmness and agitation, excitement, comfort, discomfort. But these simple feelings are not emotions. Let’s consider an example where we are in a bakery and experience a churning in the pit of our stomach. Our brain uses our senses to take in all the sights, smells, textures, and guesses that the body is hungry and we experience a craving to eat. If you experience the same churning in a hospital and see a doctor walking towards you, the brain will generate an emotion of dread and anxiety because it would guess that it’s terrible news.
All this seems harmless, right. So what’s path-breaking about this research? How does it even relate to spirituality? Let’s take a hypothetical example.
Imagine a woman who really looked upto your father. He was her hero, generally gentle, warm, and caring, and a wonderful provider for the whole family. However, he was always conscious of his social image and wanted you to dress and behave to ensure his daughter enhanced the family reputation did not bring disgrace. The girl grew up loving and respecting him but craved his approval every time she went out or made decisions in life. She would ask his opinion on her dress choices and her life decisions and anxiously wait for his response trying to read his body language for signals. When she saw him raising his eyebrows, she automatically started moderating her requests and making concessions even without him suggesting it.
She fell in love and married a wonderful man who won the approval of everyone in her family. He was gentle, kind, and a superb provider. She had become a voracious reader and had many experiences in life that made her start thinking differently about the world. Her organization was thrilled with her work and wanted her to relocate from India to Singapore and manage the office. She was nervous and wanted to discuss this with her husband at dinner. He loved his life in Pune and had all his friends and family there. She cooked a great dinner and, as he was enjoying it, slipped him the question. She could see him thinking about it. His eyebrows start shooting up. She doesn’t know what he will say. However, her brain already assumes that it will be bad news, and she starts making concessions. Maybe she can turn down the promotion. Perhaps she can make it work by living in different cities. Maybe she should just quit and plan the baby they had been talking about for the past two years. Fortunately, her husband has been using Black Lotus for a couple of years and has a high emotional quotient. He stopped her right there and said he is happy to relocate to ensure she can make the most of this opportunity. While this is a fictitious example, think about the possible consequences of your brain being a guessing machine and all your emotions being guesses. The man who smiles at you on the road may not have a bad intention. The colleague who looks vaguely like a rude neighbor may actually be pretty polite. The Muslim cab driver you canceled on Uber may be a better choice than a localite looking to fleece you. Every time you argue with your spouse, you both tell each other that you knew this is exactly how they would react.
We don’t see how anything as it actually is because your brain is making predictions that drive your entire worldview.
That’s why Advaitha Vendanta and our dearest Om Swami always say, “Thoughts are empty.” The thoughts and emotions we focus on tend to drive our behavior.
Fear-Based Conditioning Explained by Spirituality
Ten years ago, I had recurrent episodes of low-grade fever that would recur every couple of weeks. The doctors did multiple CT and brain scans and finally diagnosed it as beginner stages of TB in the lungs. I took six months of medication and recovered. However, that experience left me with a lasting distaste for fever. Before that experience, every time the monsoon started in Pune, I would take my bike out and drive in the rain. It was my ritual for the past five years. After this episode, I altogether avoid getting wet. I don’t want to have a fever for even one day. When I came down with fever, I had a low-grade fever for 12 days. Thanks for my faith in Sri Hari and Swamiji, I passed that time without making a fuss, but it triggered the deep-rooted anxiety about low-grade fever. Even as I write this, I semi-consciously move my hand to my throat to check the temperature and reassure myself. Ultimately, I realized that I need to eliminate this deep-rooted anxiety and started reading Fear by the famed Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He begins the book by talking about fear being a deep-rooted conditioned response. He talks about how when we were embryos in our mother’s wombs, our umbilical cord was the only attachment we had to her. We got all our oxygen and nutrition from her and were in a natural state of joy. We were supremely comfortable there. Then it suddenly changes one day. We are yanked out of that comfortable existence, and we have to learn to breathe on our own. Light and sounds assault and overwhelm our senses, and we feel hunger for the first time. That is the original fear a child experiences that gets replayed throughout life. As infants, we realize that we are dependent on adults for everything from nutrition to emotional support. Hence, while the original umbilical cord has been severed, we create psychological umbilical cords subconsciously. We do whatever is needed to make our parents and teachers happy, and that behavior spills over as we grow up into adults. We now want to make our spouse, neighbors, boss, larger society, and god happy. We rarely even pause to think about what could make us happy. Did you really want to get married? Did you think if you like someone, the only natural outcome is to get married to them? Did you really want to do your current job? Do you like living in a house or would instead wander around in the world free from commitments? Is that idea excellent, or are you simply saying it to be a part of the team? Does your spouse really love you, or are both of you performing roles in a social contract? What does love even mean? Do you want to have a baby? What does success mean to you?
When science calls our brain a prediction machine and artificial umbilical cords dominate our lives, how do we even know the truth? The short answer is mindfulness meditation. You can find the long answer in many of Swamiji’s or Thich Nhat Hanh’s books.
The Masterchef Connection
You must be wondering how a cooking show drove this nutcase on this journey of social conditioning? I was watching Season 12 of Masterchef Australia. Here is a summary of what made this season unique.
- The original judges who ruled the roost for 11 years had been fired for asking too much money.
- The new judges were a well-known chef, a food critic, and an old contestant who was now an established chef.
- The producers had roped in previous contestants, many of whom had flourishing businesses to come in for a second chance at winning the title.
- Given these circumstances, I felt it would be natural for the contestants to wield more influence than they previously did. I also felt the judges would be nervous and feeling their way around in the first season.
The show really surprised me. The judges slipped into their roles quickly, and the contestants went behaving like school children seeking the approval of their adults. Individuals who were parents in their own lives and ran highly successful businesses cowered like little children waiting for judgment on their food. They jumped for joy at every tiny word of praise and skulked around sulking when they got criticized for it. I wondered what turned such functioning adults into these miniature versions of their personalities in a matter of a few days. CONDITIONING is the world that leaped out at me and helped me make a journey I shared in this article.
I apologize if this article made you uncomfortable. It’s incredibly radical to look at your life with a lens where you know most decisions you made are conditioned. However, it gradually becomes liberating because once you know that chains bind you, you can start working towards freedom. The good news is we have OM SWAMI and SRI HARI right next to us, helping us make this journey.
Jai Sri Hari, dear family. I love all of you from the bottom of my heart and wish that you have a joyful and safe time ahead of you.