#83: How money hijacks your hierarchy of attention

18th April, 2022

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that money makes you pay attention to the wrong things, not the things related to, including:

  • How you’re likely blocking yourself from maturing with money.

  • How the typical way you see the money in your life is so similar to being brain damaged.

  • And why if you’re thinking money sits outside of life, that’s a sign of brain damage, and therefore even more reason to pay attention to doing something about it.

You know money with only half a brain. And it’s the stupid half. This prevents you making more (a lot more) of your money. By mapping Iain McGilchrist’s work to our relationships with money in this series of short lessons I hope to both introduce you to the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and help you do something about this.

Money hijacks your hierarchy of attention. It promises you a shortcut to purpose, but this is a trick, because purpose is beyond its purview. Without a conscious effort to keep money in its place, it’s simply a shortcut to simplistic stupidity.

Whole-Brain Personal Finance, Lesson #2: Money messes up the proper ordering of your hierarchy of attention

The world you inhabit is beset by infantilism.

A stubborn, child-like insistence that the world is divided into black and white, goodies on one side, baddies on the other, hangs over everything.

A lot of the time, this has nothing to do with you. Heck, in loads of ways, you may even be railing against it.

Perhaps you long for your big-screen heroes to be a little less super and a little more complex; more intriguingly fallible Greek gods than unrelatable, untouchable God God.

Maybe you bemoan the business-blinded ‘writing’ advice that says ‘f-you’ to adverbial aesthetics, and reduces ‘writing’ with all its beautiful, poetic potential, to a series of soulless bullet-points assessed only by their alignment with an algorithm.

Possibly you’re concerned that ‘cancel culture’, whatever the nobility of its origins, is demanding an inhuman intellectual purity so rigid that it really is cancelling ‘culture’, and trading a negatively minded comfort for a positively minded challenge.

A binary world is not a beautiful world. A world where people, having lost one faith, make hypercorrective leaps right into another, is not a wiser world; it’s a different sort of stupid one.

When it comes to all sorts of things, you may well have matured out of this childlike craving for certainty. You may well delight in the nuance and complexity inherent in adult human affairs. You may well be perfectly capable of simultaneously holding the views that ‘If–‘ is a great poem and its author probably a bit of a shit, without your head spinning into nihilistic despair.

But when it comes to your money, you’re likely not only trapped in your immaturity, but also blocking yourself from the opportunity to grow up.

Let me explain.

Money makes you immature

The theme of this series is that the way we typically live with money is very much like being brain damaged. Specifically, having right-hemisphere damage, thereby being over-reliant on the left hemisphere’s ‘take’ on the world. (Which, you may recall, is very, very, bad, given it’s the right-hemisphere’s ‘take’ that is in touch with reality, and reality is rather important.)

If we want to make something meaningful of the money in our lives, we need to live in a more whole-brained way.

To say that someone is subject to a runaway left-hemisphere take on the world is not to say that in every encounter with life they’re in effect severely autistic. That would obviously be ridiculous.

Both the scrub nurse and the surgeon are important members of the surgical team, and work together, at the same time, on the same task: an operation becomes hazardous in the absence of one, and impossible in the absence of the other. They work well together not because they have the same role, but precisely because they have different ones.

The point is that the left-hemisphere’s ‘take’ needs to be kept in its proper place. The signature moves of the left-hemisphere’s approach to how to live – the way it wields its narrow-focused attentional spotlight – is super helpful for certain calculations, but it’s completely crap at context. (And as I explained here, in the context of how to live, the spotlight is a terrible metaphor for wise attention.)

The proper processing of attention – your ever-flowing, two-way, participatory interactions with the world – starts in the right hemisphere, which is at least broadly in touch with reality, then pops over to the left when more detailed analysis is required, before returning to the right for any relevant worldview updating.

(This is something we’ll come back to in a future post. You don’t need to know any more than this three-step process right now.)

This process is the reason McGilchrist called his book The Master and his Emissary. Because it conjures up the image of a 'Master’ who has a good overview of everything, but can’t know the details of all the bits of his empire, so sends an ‘emissary’ off to find out and report back.

Things go well when the emissary, who knows bugger all about anything other than whatever they’ve been entrusted to investigate, sticks to dutifully filing reports, so that their findings can be integrated into the overall context that only the Master is aware of.

Things go awry when the emissary gets ideas above their station. When they start thinking they know best. When they start taking their narrow view as all there is, despite this narrow view being not of reality, but of the model they’ve built of a particular part of reality.

Narrowing of visionsimplistic synthetic substitutes for a complex interdependent web of humans interacting with the world… You can probably see where this is going…

If being inside the heads of the people who have what everybody else believes they want (as was my job for a decade) teaches you anything, it’s that money is really rather good at reducing reality to a series of tempting mechanical puzzles, and yet those that have ‘solved’ these puzzles are perennially puzzled in turn as to why, despite having solved them, everything still felt just as unsatisfying as before.

Bad things are prone to happen when, based on its models, the emissary thinks it’s clever because it’s reduced everything to a simple, mechanistic series of steps and guides actions based on this ‘understanding’ (which is of course not an understanding at all… for it’s just a collection of bits of propositional and procedural information.)

This process, whereby we ‘see things whole with the right hemisphere first, before homing in on details with the sharply, but narrowly, focussed gaze of the left hemisphere’ is your ‘hierarchy of attention’. It’s fundamental to the proper direction of your attention, and by extension, the construction of your world in a way that isn’t completely idiotic. And money screws it up.

By way of an example, let me tell you something about the sort of slightly dodgy tax schemes you occasionally see celebs being hammered for on the front page of the papers. The sort that are completely legal, but perhaps against the spirit of why the people of a country sign up to a system of taxation in the first place.

I’ve been in meetings where these sorts of schemes are being sold to clients.

Clients could spend hours absorbed in the calculations, working out the puzzle posed by the rewards, the risks, the costs, and the benefits. They’d get visibly excited by the sums, and start to radiate smugness as if the loophole-abusing cleverness somehow reflected their own smarts.

And then…

They’d drop the whole idea in a second when (or rather if) asked: ‘Does this scheme reflect the sort of person you want to be?’

Suddenly all the clever calculations appeared pointless. It doesn’t matter how much tax you can theoretically dodge if you’d feel like a shitty human if the fact you’d dodged it end up advertised somewhere. If you don’t want a life choice made public, it probably isn’t a life choice you want to make.

We all, deep down, care far less for the numbers, and far more for what they say about us. But given every message we see around us sends us in the opposite direction we need regular reminders to stay on track.

This is the importance of seeing how the typical way we see the money in our lives is so similar to being brain damaged.

Because the problem with brain damage is that you can easily miss it: you’re relying on the damaged brain to notice that it’s damaged.

Instead, you want to train to notice the signature of the brain damage, to become aware of when the take on reality upon which you’re relying for guidance about what to do is probably leading you in a silly direction, however tempting and clever and internally coherent it may appear.

Helping you become aware of this signature is the aim of The Master and his Emissary, and my linking of its lessons to your relationship with money.

This isn’t about abandoning one way of attending to life. It’s about respecting the hierarchy of attention that enables you to function in a more flourishing, flowing, fulfilling, way.

And if you’re thinking the importance of this is overblown because money sits outside ‘life’ somehow… then know that:

Public discourse in a culture can accentuate some ideas, concepts, beliefs and values at the expense of others. And when this happens, it is not as if these ideas, concepts, beliefs or values are atomistic; they bring with them a largely coherent world-picture, which gradually forms itself in the culture, and over time is expressed in a myriad of ways.

And therefore if you’re thinking money sits outside of life, that very thought is strong evidence that you’re being blinded by your left hemisphere and need to pay even more attention to these lessons!

Next post in the Whole-Brain Personal Finance series:

page#85: Financial philosophy > Financial psychology > Hot investment tips

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