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I’m currently reading Robert Greene’s excellent book, The Laws of Human Nature. The basic premise is that all of us act in ways that are largely unconscious, often driven by our shadow side – the aspects of our character we prefer to keep hidden.

As social creatures, our success in life depends on our ability to integrate with others. The more outgoing, agreeable and empathetic we are, the greater the opportunities in whatever relationship or position we are seeking. But often, these qualities are superficial, masking behaviours which would be considered problematic if revealed to the people we wish to impress.

Self-deception is commonplace – a natural defence mechanism for survival, perhaps. How often do you hear people say, ‘I’m a good person’, as if the very act of stating this belief is proof of its veracity and cannot be refuted. And yet the shadow side persists in spite of our attempts to diminish or get rid of it altogether.

Largely through advances in neuroscience and psychology, we know more about human nature now than at any other time in history. Robert Greene’s contribution to the subject adds further insight, reminding us how much of our character is camouflaged and subverted, enabling us to fit in and, more importantly, preventing us from being ostracised from the tribe we belong to.

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, able to make well-thought out decisions, based on the knowledge we have at our disposal. But research into human behaviour (foreshadowed by the work of philosophers and free-thinkers like David Hume) have proved that it’s actually our emotions that determine our actions and how we respond.

Fear is the key. Whenever we sense danger, our inbuilt mechanism for survival can’t wait for instructions from the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for analytical thinking. Instead, the system responsible for fight or flight takes over, forcing us to make potentially life-saving decisions.

Critical as it is to our continuation as individuals and as a species, this vital function may be the single biggest obstacle to our development as human beings. Our brains are hardwired to anticipate threats everywhere, in almost every situation.

We no longer fear the barbarian hordes or the Viking invasion, and yet, a multitude of fears and anxieties persist in spite of our attempts to pacify them. Social media now ranks as one of the leading forms of anxiety, especially among young people, desperate to be accepted by their peer group.

The more we learn about ourselves, the better equipped we are to recover from setbacks. The Laws of Human Nature addresses the psychological aspects of the dilemma – how an understanding of our motivations can help us improve socially, avoiding the pitfalls of recklessness and naivety. It also warns of the more toxic types among us, how to recognise them by their words and actions, and take evasive action.

By accepting the less agreeable aspects of our nature and refusing to hide from them, we move one step closer to an integration of the whole. This can only be done through a rigorous examination of what is there, and a determination to correct any imperfections.

Some say we are on the verge of a global explosion in human consciousness. By waking up to ourselves and our unique capabilities, we can be the vanguard for future generations. Far from being luckless automatons at the mercy of our fate, we have the means to improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

But first, we have to take a brave and unstinting look at what’s inside and not run from it. And for most of us, this will be the toughest proposition of all.

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