As mind-blowingly marvelous as the human brain is, it is still a product kluged together through ongoing evolutionary experimentation. As Cardiff University neuroscience professor (and standup comedian) Dean Burnett tells us, what we basically have is … an Idiot Brain. Here are the first six of 12 ways brain operations negatively impact us, often without us ever realizing it.
Our brain is often adversely impacted by childhood – Few of us escape childhood unscathed. As children we start out pretty helpless. We need others to clothe, feed, and emotionally regulate us. We get little direct instruction in learning to deal with parents whom we frequently make very nervous. Two of the words we hear a lot as children are “No” and “Stop.” Combine that with the fact that we really can’t do very much very skillfully – a lot of our early brain training is in … learned helplessness. Some of us spend a lifetime (or many?) doing our best to outgrow this early-acquired brain vulnerability. Some of us grow old before we ever do. In addition, because our brain networks are immature in their development, they suck at allowing us to easily self-regulate – we are daily being cast into states of hyper-arousal, leaving us vulnerable to all kinds of other maladies down the road.
Our brain can’t easily sustain passion for very long – One of the great benefits writer Elizabeth Gilbert claims she obtained by growing up on a farm is being trained to perform long bouts of boring work for extended periods. That early training prepared her to show up at her desk day after day doing the work of being a writer – which many successful writers will tell you is mostly boring work. Recognizing this, Gilbert prefers curiosity to passion. Passion is the rapid burst-firing of a few hundred million happy cells in the brain. But when the neural fireworks have subsided, it’s good to have something more substantial as a guiding principle. That’s a useful realization to carry into romantic relationships as well.
Our brain too easily learns self-hatred -Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg tells a story of the Dalai Lama’s great consternation when she asked him at a retreat to speak about how Buddhists work skillfully with self-hatred. He had to suspend activities for several hours in order to have his translators explain what Sharon was talking about. It made no sense to him – it was a completely foreign concept – wholly absent from his more than half a century of living.
Again, it comes back to childhood learning, with much self-hatred learned in creativity-destroying schools and in all the ways we fail to live up to standards imposed by adults with little understanding of how unique and vulnerable each and every one of our developing child-brains really is (to network-altering childhood hypertension, for one example). An enlightened education culture would be tailored to fit so we would come to love and prize our uniqueness rather than learn to hate ourselves for failing to meet some global, Pygmalion set of “learning objectives.” What choice do many of us have but to hate ourselves for all the ways our brains and bodies fail to measure up?
Our brain trains us to foolishly trust our senses – We generally process less than two percent of the outside world consciously; 98% is unconsciously processed. For a simple example of how our senses deceive us, take a look at the picture on the right. Up close it looks like one person. Step back from the screen and it will morph into another person. And yet, the picture on the screen hasn’t changed at all. What happens when we begin to become curious about the vast amount of sensory experience our brains are processing behind our backs? What might you be currently looking at that could benefit from a change in perspective?
Our brain prefers pleasure over pain – Dopamine will be the death of me. All the things in my life that trigger my mesolimbic pathways (my neural super-highways of addictive, dopaminergic nerve bundles) turn out, in one way or another, in the amounts I crave, to be bad for me. For example, sex, drugs, and Goetze’s caramel cremes. (An enlightened society would force processed sugar onto the Black Market where it belongs with sex and drugs).
This neurological orientation turns out to be one of the Eight Worldly Preoccupations which stand in the way of increasing neurophysiological integration, also known as Brilliant Sanity. I wrote about the Preoccupations two weeks ago.
Our brain operates with a built-in negativity bias and 187 others – The brain is charged with keeping us alert and in motion in order to keep us alive. The small window of attention it’s able to exercise, historically has been well-utilized by attending to real and potential threats present in the world. This is the Negativity Bias. Here’s now neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes it:
Imagine living in Africa a million years ago in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (especially yours) have children of their own; these are big carrots on the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you; these are significant sticks.
But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.
To combat the brain’s tendency for pleasure to operate like teflon and pain to work like velcro, Elizabeth Gilbert does a daily backward day review (rückschau) and then makes a Joy Repository – a designated jar or bowl where she writes down a single moment of joy she finds every day and tosses it into the bowl. 365 days later she has A Bowl-Year of Living Joyfully. It’s probably a good idea for our brain to mindfully mark life-moments of joy. Whatever it pays skillful attention to … tends to increase.
For a useful, organized graphic depicting the 187 other cognitive biases, click here.