Understanding our Brain

Unlike a new computer, our brain doesn’t come with an operating manual. Fortunately, over a century of research in biology, psychology and related fields has provided us with some understanding of how the human brain (and mind) works. In the same way that we get the most out of a new computer by reading the manual and understanding how it works – by understanding how our brain works we can learn how to make the most of ourselves.

The following are things I have learnt about the human brain which have helped me better understand how people think and why they behave in different ways.

 

1) The Balance of Reason & Emotion

Studies of the human brain show that it can be divided up into different areas which have different responsibilities. Here I’d like to focus on two specific areas which have very different contributions to how we think (and act).

At the core of the brain, near the brainstem which connects the brain to the rest of of body is the limbic system. This is one of the oldest parts of the brain, and is responsible for our instincts and emotions. It has been an important part in our survival as a species, allowing us to react rapidly to threats.

A more recent addition, from the point of evolution, is the frontal lobe. Located at the front of our brain, this is where reason and logical thought take place. We know this because studies of patients who have damaged frontal lobes show that that they lose the ability to think logically.

When we compare these two parts of the brain and the behaviour they produce there are some interesting differences.

When we react emotively – our emotions come effortlessly, they are fast, instinctive and they drive us to action.

When we react with reason it takes more effort and is much slower. It takes conscious effort to reason and think logically.

So how does understanding this help us?

First, knowing that when we experience a new, challenging situation it is helpful to understand that typically the first thing we experience is an emotional response. By knowing this we can train ourselves to wait for our more logical thinking to kick in when we need to make an important decision.

Advertisers are well aware that our emotions respond faster than our logical thinking to new stimuli. This is why many advertisements will start with images and sounds which appeal to emotions (e.g. fast cars, attractive people, intense feelings) to try and sell their product, only introducing facts towards the end of the ad, if at all.

Second, because our emotions are more driving – we can use this to motivate ourselves. For example, people have more success losing weight when they use visualisation techniques to imagine how they good they will feel if they lose the weight.

Reason AND emotion, when understood, work together to help us flourish. While reason can help us work out what the best course of action is in any situation, our emotions can help us to drive and motivate us when things get challenging.

 

2) Brain Power is a Limited Resource

Our brains are constantly receiving massive amounts of information both from our senses as well as processing our various internal thoughts and feelings. In order to cope with all of this information our brain filters out only that information which is deemed to be important and ignores all of the rest. This is why, for example, many people have difficulty remembering the details of an armed robbery for example, because most brains are too busy processing the intense fear and trying to work out how to get out of the situation alive, rather than remembering what the robber looked like or which way the getaway car went.

The information our brains decide to process is based on a wide range of factors – what our current goals/motivations are, the environment we are in, and our previous experiences.

This filtered experience of the world leads to a number of interesting behaviours which can be useful or produce challenges. For example, when we want to prove a point we focus on the information that supports our position and ignore that which doesn’t. Similarly when someone is newly in love they focus on all that they love about the other person and are completely oblivious to the things that may later provide challenges in the relationship. On the other hand the ability to focus on specific input and discard the rest is what enables a brain surgeon or sportsperson to do achieve success.

 

3) Type 1 and 2 Thinking

Because our brain has limited resources, this can lead to two different types of thinking.

System One thinking is essentially our autopilot mode. It relies on things that we have previously learnt and experienced to make quick, instinctive decisions without occupying too much intellectual resources. For example, when we make our usual coffee order or answer “what is one plus one?” most of us will answer automatically, without much thought or effort.

System Two thinking is what we reserve for the important decisions in our lives (or at least what we decide are the important decisions). Different people will assign different importance to different decisions, for example, a bride engage in far more System Two thinking than their husband to be (at least according to common stereotypes).

We cannot spend our life analysing every situation so system one thinking is important, however, it can cause problems. If we are trying to break a habit (e.g. reducing sugar in our coffee) these automatic responses can be problematic. Automatically using a money machine without noticing it looks slightly different due to the addition of a scam card reader, is another example of where this can work against us.

One of the techniques I use is to every now and then take the time to re-evaluate what I am doing and/or take time out to actually take in the world around me. It is amazing the things that you don’t notice.

 

4) We ALL Experience a DIFFERENT Reality

If our brains filter and interpret information based on our different priorities and previous experiences then we essentially experience a different reality, or at least a different perception of reality. Imagine the different people that might visit a bar one evening. A single man and a happily married man will have different priorities and therefore a different experience. Someone who is introverted will have a different experience from someone who is extroverted. A person new to town will likely have a different experience to a regular. A firefighter might be distracted by violations to the fire code while a chef may critique the venue based on the food. We all look and, indeed, remember different things.

If we were to ask everyone who attended the bar about their experience the following day, we would hear a wide range of experiences based on the information they filtered and how they interpreted events based on previous experiences. Some of the experiences may sound so different that it may seem they weren’t in the same place.

When we remember a particular event we typically create a story in our head about it, but typically we have gaps. Our brain is very good at filling in these gaps by extrapolating information. The problem with this is that sometimes our brains just make stuff up to try and create continuity for the stories in our head. Our memories can also be influenced by others. When a friend describes something they thought happened at the bar, your brain may try and integrate that information into your recollection of the event. This is one of the reasons why accurate eyewitness testimony can be difficult as witnesses can unconsciously “rewrite” their memories when they are questioned.

The fact that we all experience a different perception of reality is something to be very mindful of. In my experience the major cause of conflict is not because people are being purposely hurtful or careless, but because they are interpreting the same situation differently based on the information they are filtering and how they are interpreting that information based on their previous experiences.

 

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