Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

Why Creating an Impromptu Brain Sync is Good Neural Medicine

When you have a chance to help someone, you're giving your brain a boost, too.

Maybe you've found yourself in a situation like the one I’m about to describe.  You’re driving down a street and notice that someone is trying to parallel park but is having a really difficult time. They’ve managed to wedge their car halfway into the spot with the other half jutting out dangerously in the path of traffic. The instant you see this, you can feel what the driver is feeling because you’ve been there before. Nothing quite sucks the way getting caught in a screwed up parallel parking situation sucks.

So now you have a decision to make. You can either drive by and let the person keep struggling, or you can try to help them. You decide to try to help.  So you pull your car up to create a barrier between their car and oncoming traffic – a makeshift hovel that allows the driver to pull out of the spot and rearrange their position.

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Of course, they don’t realize you are trying to help. In fact, it’s just as likely that they think you’re pulling up to hassle them about blocking traffic, so it’s important that you clarify your intentions. You wait for any cars to pass and then open your door so you can stand and motion to the driver that you’re trying to help.  The driver opens his window and waves, signaling that your message has been received.  At this point, you’re in this together. 

Inevitably, people begin honking and yelling and making certain gestures at you and the driver. It doesn’t matter.  By making a decision to help and then following up that decision with action, you’ve synced your believing brain with that of the driver.  You believe that offering assistance--even at some risk to yourself--to help this person succeed is worthwhile, and your belief is bridging the gap between the two of you. 

Would the driver have eventually parked successfully without your help?  Maybe, maybe not – but that isn’t the point. The point, illustrated in this innocuous example, is that whenever you think and act in alignment with a belief that helping someone else is worthwhile, you’ve initiated an impromptu brain sync with that person’s brain—and by doing so you’ve infused his or her brain with a sense of belief that success is attainable.   

The term “paying it forward” actually has a strong neurobiological underpinning. When we witness affirmative action to help someone succeed, our brain registers the event as evidence of our capability to do the same. In other words, helping someone succeed becomes an attainable “reward” (in cognitive science parlance), and we actually start looking for opportunities to attain it. This is excellent brain medicine because it builds and strengthens neural connections around altruistic belief; in a very real sense, our brains grow from the experience. 

The tool here is deceptively simple: the next time you have an opportunity to create an impromptu brain sync with someone, take it. You’ll be helping yourself while you’re helping them. 

This post is an exerpt from my upcoming book, Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life (Ben Bella Books), due out in Septemeber 2013. 

www.daviddisalvo.org

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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