Changing your brain's factory settings

Where is the pull down menu for changing your brain?

Posted Sep 07, 2010

When you fire-up a software application for the first time, such as Word, you'll notice that Microsoft has already put in default settings such as font type, font size and margin spacing. These factory settings are appropriate, if, like the majority of users, all you want to do is to write a business letter, term paper or progress report. But if you want to publish a two-column newsletter, or compose a custom-designed birthday card, you have to find a pull down menu (or several menus) and change the settings to suit your purpose.

It turns out that your brain also comes with factory settings designed to handle the most common situations. Evolutionary Psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby of the University of Santa Barbabra, call these factory settings "Darwinian Algorithms" or neural programs that specify a wide range of if-then behaviors: if hungry, eat. If afraid, run. If lonely seek companionship...and so forth. Cosmides and Tooby call these algorithms (methods of solving problems) Darwinian because these neural programs helped our ancestors survive challenging situations and ultimately, to reproduce.

Although your brain's factory settings are like Word's out-of-the-box defaults in that "Darwinian algorithms" will automatically execute unless you change them, your brain and Microsoft Word differ in several crucial respects.

The most important difference is that Microsoft actually does a better job, in many cases, of picking the right default settings for Word than your brain does for defining if-then contingencies. For example, Microsoft knows that 12 point fonts and 1" margins are correct for most documents. But your brain often guesses wrong about which if-then rules will produce the best results. Consider what happens when you walk into a business meeting and see two types of food laid out for the participants: fresh cut veggies on one platter and donuts on the other. Your brain's default program is "if presented a choice between two foods, pick the one with the most calories." Evolution etched this "Darwinian algorithm" deep into our brains at a time when our hunter-gatherer ancestors fought a never-ending battle with starvation. So, unless you‘ve worked really hard to toggle off these default desires for calorie-rich food, you'll go for the donuts every time.

Your brain's factory settings are also hidden much better than Microsoft's. With Word or Power Point, all you have to do is click on a pull down menu, find the desired new setting, put your cursor over it and click. But where are the controls for changing the default settings in your brain?

Finally, most of us would never think to look for our brain's factory settings in the first place because we learned in school that, unlike animals, humans have no factory settings (instincts). Humans are unique, so we were taught, because we learn all our behaviors. It's very hard to get rid of something-such as a factory setting-that we don't admit having in the first place!

Taken together, these three differences between software factory settings and your brain's factory settings cause many of modern society's most troubling problems.

Obesity, for example, which results from our brain's default preference for calorie-rich food, has reached epidemic proportions,with the World Health organization estimating that roughly 1 in 6 of the world's 6 billion people are overweight.
And the low success rates of most diets underscores just how hard it can be to find and change the brain's default preferences for rich, sweet foods.

Human violence, whether in the home or between nation states (i.e. wars) is another modern ill with ancient roots. Evolutionary Psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly of McMaster University assert that intra-species violence was probably adaptive (helped our ancestors propagate their genes) in our far distant past. In exploring the evolutionary underpinnings of domestic violence, they wrote:

In addition to the utility of violent prowess in vanquishing enemies and in acquiring food, assaults and threats are effective coercive tactics more generally, whether in the context of helping oneself to another's property, in the pursuit of sexual access
or in any other area in which interests are not consonant.

Wilson and Daly go on to speculate that modern husbands, operating on ancient, Darwinian algorithms, use violence, or the threat of violence, to make sure that their wives do not mate with rival males and propagate someone else's genes at the expense of their own.

As with obesity, changing the default preference (of many humans, especially males) for using violence to solve problems is extraordinarily difficult. Is there even such a thing as a pull down menu for changing the brain's settings for violence, and if so, where is it?

The answer might be found in recent research into a question with a seemingly obvious answer: what is the function of consciousness? I say "seemingly obvious" because our own subjective experience of consciousness-thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, ideas and intentions-suggests an obvious answer: consciousness is the vehicle by which we think, decide and act

This "obvious" explanation would in turn suggest that before a man hits his wife, he consciously decides to use violence as a way of controlling her behavior. Thus the answer to eliminating domestic violence is for men to assert conscious control of their behavior.

But this obvious answer turns out to be wrong. Neuroscientists have discovered that consciousness is more of a reflection of our behavior than a cause of it. For example, Benjamin Libet of the University of California, San Francisco discovered that, when he asked test subjects to randomly move their hands, the electrical activity in his subjects' brains, that initiated hand movements, occurred well before subjects were consciously aware they had decided to move.

Similarly, when I worked as a domestic violence counselor at a community mental health center in the 1980's, I noticed surprising consistency in the stories of men who battered their partners. When asked "what was going on in your head before you struck your wife?" almost all of these violent men said something like "Well, it was as if I watched my hand reach out and slap my wife on its I was watching a movie of myself hit her."

In other words, some neural process other than consciousness, that operated much faster than thought, drove behavior both of Libet's lab subjects and my violent patients.

The implication for changing mens' violent behavior is clear: it's not enough to get abusive men to think " I won't hit my wife," because, by the time they have thought this thought, the non-conscious part of their brain that really controls their behavior--a Darwinian algorithm if you will-- would have already decided to strike out.

Put another way, if there is a "pull down menu" in violent men's brains that can be used to change the factory setting for domestic violence, this "menu" is not directly accessible through conscious thought. Rather, to change such a deeply entrenched "automatic" behavior it is necessary to reach deep below the level of consciousness to somehow unconsciously change the problematic factory setting.

The notion of making unconscious changes to unconscious behaviors immediately raises a paradox. How is it possible to change unconscious behaviors if consciousness--the presumed vehicle by which we would try to make these changes--is a useless afterthought of behavior, not an initiator of behavior?

The work of John Bargh, who runs the Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Emotion (ACME) Lab at Yale University may supply an answer. Bargh's research indicates the role of human consciousness is not to directly change our behaviors, because conscious processes operate too slowly to compete with much faster, unconscious processes. Rather, Bargh believes that consciousness initiates a multi-step process by which new "slow" behaviors that we want to adopt, get repeated and reinforced enough times  that these behaviors eventually get faster and more automatic, until ultimately, the behaviors occur automatically without any conscious effort.

Consider, for example, what happens when you learn to play a new song on a piano or first learn to hit a tennis ball with a racket. Initially, you have to "consciously think your way through" the playing of each note or the exact placement of your feet and racket. But after many repetitions and much practice, where you say to yourself, "I will put my finger here" or "my racket there" the playing of the song and the hitting of a tennis ball eventually happen on their own, without any conscious intervention on your part.

Consciousness, by this interpretation, is a sort of an air lock or vestibule into  our unconscious-- where the real action is.

I used this idea to design the therapy I administered to violent men. Rather than trying to change their conscious thought processes, I first tried to get them to be aware of the effects upon their bodies of unconscious processes that lead to a chain reaction culminating in violence. Moments before abusive men actually hurt their spouses, their bodies show signs of frustration and rage. Their heartbeats accelerate, and they often experience tightness in their jaws, neck or chest and their blood pressure elevates. These changes in physiology, initiated by the autonomic nervous system, are reliable predictors that a man is about to get violent, but normally go unnoticed unless the man is trained to pay conscious attention to these reactions.

So I showed patients how to consciously tune in to their bodies during arguments (a process called sensate awareness), in order to monitor the physiological danger signs of pending violence. When a man became aware that his heart was racing or his muscles were tensing, he was coached to say "I need a time out" then to immediately leave the room before the "automatic" violent behavior emerged. Wives of these patients were counseled let their spouses be alone for an hour or so.

Over time, with enough conscious repetitions of the new "time out behavior" men were able to cool off "automatically" before they hurt their wives, effectively substituting a new "healthy" automatic behavior for an old, "unhealthy" one.

In Bargh's framework, the role of consciousness here was to work itself out of a job, by eventually getting unconscious processes to take over. Consciousness did not directly change the factory settings of violent men, but indirectly got unconscious processes to do it. Consciousness, it would seem, is itself a "Darwinian algorithm" that our brains execute in order to replace older algorithms, such as domestic violence, that have long outlived their usefulness.

Although "tuning in and timing out" therapy did not work with all patients, it was effective with enough of them to give me hope that, someday, we might use similar techniques tackle violence on a wider scale. What if, for example, all Presidents were required by law to take a "time out" before our nation's instincts to use the military force to solve foreign policy problems were put into action?

As a former intelligence officer who directly participated in two wars, I know that the world can be a dangerous place where military force is sometimes necessary. But I also know that that we no longer live in harsh stone age conditions, and that there are just as many instances today where military violence causes more problems than it solves.

If, somehow, we could get our collective consciousness to change out the ancient factory settings of our collective unconscious, perhaps the number of times military force were genuinely needed would decrease to the point where our biggest problem with our brains' factory settings would be to turn off the "donut" switch.

Learn more about working with our brain's ancient scripts at

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