The Dangers of Listening to Your Brain

"My brain made me do it" is only too true.

Posted Apr 22, 2012

How much can you blame your brain, or its wiring, for your mistakes? How much can you change the way you think and feel?

The answers may lie in one of the new books that have come to my attention. They each star the brain, and each has its own focus and its own strengths.

According to What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, by David DiSalvo, we ought to seek out science-help when we're struggling with a decision. DiSalvo, who writes and blogs widely about science (including here), explains that science-help is based on rational analysis of the science behind advice, rather than the more glib self-help, which is too often based on very little other than opinion or wanting to leave readers feeling good or hopeful.

DiSalvo gathers 50 of what he terms "knowledge clues drawn from research," many based on concepts discussed in greater depth throughout the book. These are ideas that, if we used more of them before taking action, would save us a lot of later regret.

For instance, he suggests checking what's called your availability bias. Our brains like to be "happy," and a brain is made happy when things are settled and neatly arranged in understandable patterns. But the brain tends to make judgments based on information that is handy. And not all information that is handy is informed by reality. The media and our own tendency to pay attention to views that are similar to our own can lead the brain into figuring that our opinions are the correct ones. Even when they're not. Just knowing that can help us make better judgments.

WHAT'S A CONNECTOME?

Another angle is taken by Sebastian Seung, Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Physics at MIT and Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is the author of Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are.

Connectome explores what neuroscientists know so far about how the brain works, and introduces the idea that it's not so much the neurons but how they connect to each other that makes us unique individuals. That wiring, that connectiveness, that connectome, if you will, changes as we have experiences. So nature is rearranged somewhat by nurture in our brain wiring.

It's a fascinating concept, discussed in very readable detail. Seung tells us how far neuroscientists have gotten in mapping the connectome, and what the benefits may be for all of us when the task is eventually accomplished. Certainly we'll know just what we're listening to when our own brains try to convince us of something.

In the final section of Connectome, there's the most comprehensive and thought-provoking discussion I've read of cryonics, the practice of freezing heads or bodies in the hope of their being resurrectable, in some way, in the far future. Would you want your brain's memories to be uploaded into a computer?

Watch Seung's TED talk.

THE EMOTIONAL SIDE

One way to change the rewiring of your brain on purpose is to use mindfulness meditation. According to Marsha Lucas, Ph.D., author of Rewire Your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness, you can make use of what we know about the brain's wiring to enhance your relationships. She uses the wiring analogy throughout this book, as when she titles a chapter about self-knowing "Putting a Work Light in the Attic." That attic is your attachment and relationship history.

Accessing your inner mind may help you understand why you react the way you do to certain experiences, such as avoiding closeness. That reaction may be wired in from childhood.

Lucas, a neuropsychologist and psychotherapist, simplifies the process of meditation while sprinkling serious science throughout the book. For instance, she explains the various brain parts involved in emotional responses, shorthanding them as your basal forebrain. See her "12 Tips" here.

Along the same lines, only less cute and even more scientifically convincing, we learn about the malleability of the brain in Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live-And How You Can Change Them. By multi-credentialed brain scientist Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., with science writer Sharon Begley, this book covers our entire psychological make-up, going well beyond relationship issues.

Included is a full discussion of emotional style, which comprises six dimensions. There are also clearly explained "neurally inspired exercises to change your emotional style." They are meant to help if you are not naturally resilient, if you're depressed, or struggling with some other emotional issue. Once again, it looks like mindfulness meditation is a huge help.

Though I've read some of this material in other forms, Davidson's approach, affective neuroscience, is fresh.

For more on meditation and other aspects of brain-changing, see Davidson's links to several fascinating YouTube and other videos here.

Copyright (2012) by Susan K. Perry

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