Our Compartmented Mind

The most disconcerting discovery is to find that every part of us – intellect, will, sense-mind, nervous or desire self, the heart, the body – has each, as it were, its own complex individuality and natural formation independent of the rest; it neither agrees with itself nor with the others nor with the representative ego which is the shadow cast by some central and centralising self on our superficial ignorance. We find that we are composed not of one but many personalities and each has its own demands and differing nature. Our being is a roughly constituted chaos … 

(Sri Aurobindo – from “The Synthesis of Yoga”)


We all have a compartmented mind.

We manage to hold simultaneously many conflicting ideas by keeping them in separate compartments in our mind. Our mental worlds are not, as many of us like to believe, nicely ordered, self-consistent, clean and settled. But it is not just ideas – beliefs, views, opinions – that we compartmentalize. We also hold contradictory emotions about people or situations. We even have contradictory desires. And of course, as a result of all this, many of our actions are contradictory.

A self-proclaimed bird lover keeps in a different mental compartment the fact that he often eats chicken for dinner. A Christian priest who teaches the sanctity of life has no qualms about blessing weapons or whole armies that kill. A doctor who urges his patients to quit smoking is himself a smoker. Parents punish their kids for not reading books although they never themselves read. And many of us ask for privacy yet post all the details of our lives on social media, and we accuse others of lying although we lie ourselves.

But we are rarely aware of our internal contradictions. We do not see them, or when we do, we are not truly puzzled by them. In a few rare occasions, we may feel some discomfort at discovering that we hold contradictory views, but we soon find a way to throw our worries under the carpet and do not brood over them.

Psychology has a term for our ability to hold two contradictory views simultaneously: cognitive dissonance. Psychologists have performed thousands of experiments over the last seventy years or so to discover how we go about resolving such contradictions and have discovered a few interesting (albeit occasionally quite self-evident) behaviors. For example, they found that if someone makes a public statement that contradicts his long held views, since he cannot change the public statement, he tends to modify his views (that can be changed) to conform with the stance he took publicly. They also found that a smoker who acknowledges that smoking is bad for his health may use a number of rationalizations to justify his inconsistent behavior: he may claim he is more likely to die in a road accident than from smoking, or that he would rather live a shorter and happier life than a long and deprived one. Psychologists have claimed that such a posteriori rationalizations (usually forced upon people by others) are attempts to eliminate the cognitive dissonance. But I actually think it is the exact opposite: such rationalizations do not reduce the dissonance but cement it! The smoker consciously chooses to maintain two separate mental compartments: one holding the fact that smoking is bad, and the other their continuing to smoke.

Overall, I think that psychologists have approached this whole subject incorrectly from the very beginning. In most of their experiments, they have explored how humans go about dealing with their contradictions after someone else has forced them to confront them. They have assumed, without any justification, that people feel psychologically uncomfortable when confronted by their contradictions and that this is why they try to resolve them. Therefore, the experiments created artificial situations in which the participants were forced to face their cognitive dissonances and do something about them. Well, it may not come as a surprise to discover that people may indeed come up with some rationale to explain their contradictions when another person forces them to confront them. But unless others point to these contradictions, most people are rarely aware of the existence of any dissonance in their thought or behavior. Even when they are, such as in the case of the self-aware smoker, they still do what they please, having developed an answer at the ready for anybody who points out their inconsistency or contradictory behavior! Contrary to what psychologists have assumed, unless people are prompted by others, they rarely if ever try to spontaneously eradicate or even mitigate their contradictory views or behaviors. We have learned to live with our contradictions from a young age and do not allow them to interfere with our daily life or disturb our psychological well-being. If this were not so, we would observe on a regular basis many people openly struggling with and sharing the internal contradictions that trouble them – we don’t. We would also see a good number of them succeeding in their struggle, i.e., managing to live with no or at least with a modicum of contradictions. I have yet to meet such a person!

The reality that we indeed do live with our contradictions, without an inner eye overseeing our internal mental segregations, was actually first explored by Socrates. In Plato’s dialogue “First Alcibiades,” Socrates confronts his young pupil Alcibiades who thinks he is fit to become a politician and rule Athens. Through elaborate questioning, Socrates makes Alicibiades first admit that in order to be a leader, one has to have some special qualities, and then he makes him acknowledge that he lacks those qualities, therefore admitting that his ambition to rule is irrational and unfounded. In what is one of the first examples of someone forcing another person to acknowledge his internal contradictions, we can see how not just Alcibiades but all of us may think we can “do better” than those who rule us despite the fact that we have not had any appropriate training for the job or any related experience. Quite tellingly, we know from history that Alcibiades seems not to have learned the lesson of his wise teacher – he did enter politics at a young age, and ended up becoming a menace to Athens. This augments the argument that even after people are confronted with their contradictions, even after acknowledging them, they have no problem keeping them intact with some simple “smoker-style” rationalization and moving on with their original plans!

Our compartmented mind can most clearly be seen in the way we filter our observations. One of the strongest examples that never ceases to amaze me is the way we view the spring season. Every spring, a profusion of new plants and insects enters our life. All these colors and movements capture our attention and even inspire us. A great number of poems, from Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” to Hardy’s “Proud Songsters,” praise this dazzling show of colors, sounds, and vitality. But what astonishes me is the almost universal blindness to the fact that all of these entities are short lived: for every cicada that sings, another falls dead from a branch; for every blooming flower, there’s one wilting; for every colorful flittering butterfly, there’s a dead one on the ground being eaten by ants. Every spring, the whole life cycle of Nature seems to shrink – living things appear for a day or two and then vanish. In no other season is life and death so visibly present and intertwined. But all of us, including our great poets, somehow cut out the death part! We place death in another mental compartment and ignore it. Even when a little moth enters our mouth and we … eat it by mistake, or a small spider gets caught in our hair and, while trying to liberate it, we kill it, we still compartmentalize our vision to see only life. The words of Vivekananda come to mind here:

There is no action which does not bear good and evil fruits at the same time. To take the nearest example: I am talking to you, and some of you, perhaps, think I am doing good; and at the same time I am, perhaps, killing thousands of microbes in the atmosphere; I am thus doing evil to something else. When it is very near to us and affects those we know, we say that it is very good action if it affects them in a good manner. For instance, you may call my speaking to you very good, but the microbes will not; the microbes you do not see, but yourselves you do see. The way in which my talk affects you is obvious to you, but how it affects the microbes is not so obvious …. He who in good action sees that there is something evil in it, and in the midst of evil sees that there is something good in it somewhere, has known the secret of work.

Vivekananda points to what is most probably the biggest of all illusions we live by – that we “do no harm.” The majority of us think of ourselves as “being good.” Yet every day during our morning walk, we kill a number of living organisms, as the excerpt above describes, without being aware of it. We harm unwittingly not only animals, but also other humans.

We judge our own actions by our intentions, and even when we discover that we have done someone some harm, we still maintain the view that we “are good” since our intentions were good. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” means that although we judge ourselves by our intentions, others judge us by our deeds. We mentally segregate our intentions from our actions when they are not in harmony, because we cannot face the negative outcome of our actions. Yet irrespective of how hard we try, we cannot avoid harming others. Nowhere is this theme better explored than in the ingenious comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm, where the protagonist and creator of the series, Larry David, who basically plays himself, becomes entangled in weird situations in which, despite his often-sincere efforts to minimize harming others, he ends up insulting or injuring those he interacts with. A repeated theme is the conflict between Larry’s commitment to being absolutely truthful and his efforts to please others. When he is overly truthful, he hurts people, and when he tells lies to please them, his lies are later exposed and he again unwittingly hurts them. The upshot is that there’s no middle way of behaving properly in our complicated society with its many contradictory social norms, nor a way of avoiding conflicts, because one cannot be both absolutely truthful and likeable.

At the extreme end of “doing no harm” is none other than what our parents, teachers, governments, and churches teach us: “do not kill.” Yet these very people and institutions send us to the army to learn how to do the exact opposite. A number of countries, including my own, still have mandatory military service, while all governments retain the right to call all men to arms at will. Murder is prohibited, unless it is sanctioned for a war that others decide is just. We are all, in a sense, potential murderers that may at any moment be called to service! Yet we again compartmentalize this, and when the time to fight comes, we create similar rationalizations to those of the smoker: “we kill in self-defense,” or “we kill (other families) to protect our families,” or “we kill for our country/god/beliefs.” It seems that our institutions also have a compartmented mind – since they are, after all, a reflection on a grander scale of our own personal nature. They keep in different mental chambers contradictory policies, teachings, and actions. Not self-consistency, nor harmony of words and deeds, but expediency is the driving force behind the innumerable schizophrenic policies of human society.

Another good example of mental compartmentation between intentions and actions, which is related to another type of “killing,” is vegetarianism. Many become vegetarians not in order to simply have healthier eating habits but to avoid killing animals. Vegetarians have arbitrarily placed plants in the category of the nonliving and feel justified eating them even though plants are also living entities. The rationalization is that plants are not sentient, have no feelings, do not suffer, and so on. Yet still, plants are alive. Even if we choose to reject Tompkins’s case in his controversial book of the 1970’s The Secret Life of Plants, in which he ascribed even sentience to plants, we must acknowledge a lot of truth in Wohlleben’s recent bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees: He has accumulated a lot of evidence that trees become part of communities where the younger trees learn from the older ones, there is communication between them, they express “feelings” such as fear and pain, and they are nearer to the animal kingdom than we have heretofore believed. Vegetarians may not kill one type of living entity, but they still kill another.

The vegetarian denial is part of a larger denial, which is the oldest, most hardly ingrained, and probably the most dazzling example of our compartmented mind: we are animals but never think of ourselves as such! Perhaps nothing is more invisible to us in our everyday life than the awareness of our animal nature. We are animals, yet we place this fact in a very remote mental compartment that we rarely visit. We have animal bodies, yet we do not see these bodies because we hide them with clothing. We “kill to eat and rob the newly born of its mother’s milk to quench our thirst,” as Khalil Gibran eloquently puts it, but we cook our food and cover it with colorful sauces, turn the milk into refined French cheeses, and serve everything on a plate so that we don’t look like pigs or hyenas when we eat. We have excrement, but we use elaborate toilets with seats and flushes that we may dispense with it as fast as possible. And we have turned copulation into “sex” – an activity that we have disassociated from the function of reproduction.

Well, we have a compartmented mind, we are this contradictory species – what do we do about it?

As already suggested, most of us are not interested in resolving our contradictions, not just because we rarely see them – or upon seeing them, simply rationalize them in weird ways – but mainly because being contradictory beings is part of our nature. We have a compartmented mind not because of a fault in our makeup but because this is our makeup. We have such a mind and we are inconsistent and imperfect beings in the same way as our memory is imperfect, or as our knees cannot withstand a jump from twenty meters high. Just as we know the limitations of our memory and our knees and adapt our behavior accordingly, knowing the limitations of our ability to be self-consistent and noncontradictory allows us to be less critical of ourselves and especially of others – in whom we can now more easily see a reflection of ourselves. But most importantly, I think that we need to become awareobserveand study our compartmented mind in order to better know ourselves. By regularly reviewing our mental compartments, the inconsistency between our intentions and actions, as well as our contradictory actions we better understand how we and other people function.

That said, the more philosophical of us, or those who cannot easily rest in peace once they discover their internal contradictions, may wish to go a step further and boldly try to eliminate them. Such an ambitious endeavor is possible, but it must be understood that it can never be completed. For irrespective of how many of our contradictions we eradicate, there will always be many more invisible ones that we will never have access to, as well as a number that we will end up deciding to live with. Absolute self-consistency, harmony of emotions, thoughts, and deeds may be something we may keep striving to achieve, but it will always be an unattainable goal.

© 2021 Nicos Hadjicostis