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Why unhappy brains are better brains

Date

Sarah Berry

Because they're more observant and make better decisions, writes Sarah Berry.

Boxed in ... happy brains see what they want to see.

Boxed in ... happy brains see what they want to see.

It's the reason we routinely limit ourselves. It's why we pigeonhole ourselves and others. It's behind the assumption that if something is done one way then it's the only way it can be done. It's why we close ourselves off to adventures or anything that is unfamiliar and potentially 'scary'. It explains why we make a judgement, stick our heels in and dismiss any evidence that we are wrong. It motivates us to take the easy option even when it's not the best option.

Our brains might be grey matter, but they prefer it when things are black and white.

When life is bite-sized and reducible it makes our brain's 'happy'. But, it also means cutting ourselves off from the possibilities of a richer life and from achieving our full potential. Or from simply making well-informed decisions about anything.

It means missing out on the magnificent spectrum of a technicolour world.

And it's all down to the evolutionary hardwiring of our brains says author, David DiSalvo in his book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite.

"Our brain's evolved to survive," he told SharpBrains. "[They] didn't evolve to meet the needs of a complex, information driven culture. Cultural evolution has outpaced natural evolution, and we are in a perpetual state of 'catch up.'"

This is because the brain equates survival with keeping a stable internal environment, called 'homeostasis' he explains. So, in its attempts to process the mind-boggling world around it, the brain looks for certainty, control and consistency. All of which can leave us, well, narrow-minded and at odds with a world where the landscape is constantly shifting and changing colour - a dynamic environment that demands an ability to respond with equivalent flexibility and engagement.

"Our big brains, advanced as they are, come with an array of complex shortcomings," DiSalvo says in his book.

While we necessarily process new stimuli by detecting patterns to create a web of information, this mechanism can also set stubborn default positions that trip us up.

"[The web of information] will be added to and subtracted from, shifted, adjusted, and contorted," he explains.

"But, all these movements will occur within a framework derived from recurring patterns that your brain has identified, coded, and categorised."

The shortcomings this can lead to includes those psychologists refer to as confirmational bias or 'certainty bias'.

That is are our predisposition to focus on or select the pieces of information that 'confirm' our opinion (of a person, a topic, anything) and disregard anything to the contrary.

"Our need to be right is actually a need to "feel" right," he says. "Since our brains like being happy, we like feeling right.

"In our everyday lives, though, feeling right translates into being right (because if we could admit that we only 'feel' right, then we might not really be right, and from our brains' point of view that's just not alright)."

In the book he cites a 2005 study conducted by psychologist Ming Hsu which found that even a small amount of ambiguity triggers increased activity in the amygdalae - brain clusters that relate to threat.

"The brain doesn't merely prefer certainty over ambiguity," DiSalvo says. "It craves it."

The effect of our brains' natural inclinations, and how it can lead us to errors, biases, and distortions, is what he explores in his book. He also provides strategies for overcoming these limitations.

"The reason I wrote the book is I've read a lot about cognitive bias but felt what was missing was the application of it," he says. "I wanted to write something people were able to apply."

Of the fifty methods he outlines in the book, key is having an awareness of our thoughts (meta-cognition) and a willingness to challenge our justifications for behaviour or attitude.

"Research conducted by a ... team of psychologists found that people with less need for 'cognitive closure' were typically more creative problem solvers than their counterparts," he says. "In other words, those who are able to work past their brain's appetite for certainty—its need to shut the closure door to preserve stability—are more likely to engage challenges from a broader variety of vantage points and take risks to overcome them."

Insights such as these have altered the way DiSalvo approaches his own life.

"I have a better appreciation of unseen influences," he says. "I'm a lot more observant now. I'm not paranoid, but I'm looking at myself and asking 'how am I reacting to this situation?'...Now, I try to short-circuit negative reactions and I'm more thoughtful in how I deal with other people.

"Of course, when we're emotionally affected it's much more difficult to detach....it's hard to do, but with time we can train ourselves."

DiSalvo acknowledges that science is "messy" and doesn't satisfy our brain's desire for airtight answers. He says, "there's a great deal we don't understand. We're at the beginning of understanding why our brains do the things [they do]."

But, he believes that by having a sense of what we're working with, we can be more effective in navigating the space between impulse and action.

Which is not to say that we shouldn't also listen to our brains, but that mindfulness is the way forward. By using meta-cognition we can start to shine a little light on the grey matter of our minds and become selective about which thoughts and behaviours are constructive.

"It's not always advantageous to act against our neural inclinations," he says.

"Sometimes a narrow frame is right for the situation, and sometimes disallowing new information is necessary. We have to dance with our instincts to figure out when to leap or when to stay on the ground. That's the challenge of being human of having a big brain capable of greatness with hardwiring evolved for survival."

21 comments so far

  • Only fools think in absolutes.

    Commenter
    Benwah
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 23, 2012, 11:57AM
    • Exactly.

      Creativity can be taught and rewarded.

      If we are rewarded for thinking differently we will crave that.

      If we are rewarded for not thinking for ourselves we will crave that.

      Commenter
      Flingebunt
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      March 23, 2012, 3:19PM
  • Ah – but, Benwah, isn't your statement itself an absolute? (Surely some non-fools think in absolutes occasionally, as well. And fools, every once in a while – in idiot sauvage fashion – perceive the muddy, muddy grey.)

    Commenter
    Mountain Wolf
    Date and time
    March 23, 2012, 12:12PM
    • Absolutely.

      Can I seek absolution for my absolute statement? Will I be absolved!

      Commenter
      Benwah
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 23, 2012, 1:03PM
  • "Mindfulness" has been recommended by Buddhism for centuries.

    Quote from the above article: "I try to short-circuit negative reactions and I'm more thoughtful in how I deal with other people. Of course, when we're emotionally affected it's much more difficult to detach....it's hard to do, but with time we can train ourselves."

    The above is the essence of how I interpret the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. It's a form of self-awareness where we are capable of contemplating why we have the thoughts that we have, and whether other points of view could be considered rather than just leaping to the easy "black and white" conclusion, particularly in our dealings with others.

    The title had me assuming that the article would state that mindfulness means you can't be happy. In fact, it's more a case of the opposite, for me at least. Practising mindfulness has made me a lot happier.

    Commenter
    mum of four
    Date and time
    March 23, 2012, 12:33PM
    • Don't believe everything you think.

      Commenter
      memes
      Date and time
      March 23, 2012, 12:57PM
      • ...hahahaha...
        ...why?
        ...hahahaha...

        Commenter
        mama
        Date and time
        March 23, 2012, 3:02PM
    • The evolutionary aspects to the theories are enticing only if you believe your encestors ate each others fleas.

      But this research is intriguing:

      "Research conducted by a team of psychologists found that people with less need for 'cognitive closure' were typically more creative problem solvers than their counterparts," he says. "In other words, those who are able to work past their brain's appetite for certainty—its need to shut the closure door to preserve stability—are more likely to engage challenges from a broader variety of vantage points and take risks to overcome them."

      Hmm, trouble is that the modern workplace rewards mechanistic processes and I'd suggest the office environ trains a brain to reward cognitive closure to a certain degree.
      If Wall street's greed merchants don't know how to relax/socialize (as reported last week) then surely their work environment incubated that?

      Commenter
      Alex
      Location
      Finley
      Date and time
      March 23, 2012, 1:05PM
      • Argh. My brain hurts.

        Commenter
        Pip
        Location
        Box Hill
        Date and time
        March 23, 2012, 1:21PM
        • Perhaps this is why 'conservatism', in all its forms, is so appealing. And yet, it is also why conservatism is less likely to lead to innovation and creative problem solving and development. By definitintion, when you reduce your frame of reference and lock out alternative perspectives and challenging information, you create 'certainty' and lose creativity and genuine wonder for the world - the cost seems to be anxiety and being a bit miserable at times ... but it seems this is likely to make us better people, too.

          Commenter
          bilby
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          March 23, 2012, 1:23PM

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