Why unhappy brains are better brains

Sarah Berry -Mar 23, 2012

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."

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