Thursday, September 27, 2012

Making Your Brain Happy

The 2011 book by David DiSalvo, WHAT MAKES YOUR BRAIN HAPPY AND WHY YOU SHOULD DO THE OPPOSITE, was recommended to me by a friend.  I read it, and am glad I did.  For me, this book explained a lot.

DiSalvo's basic premise is this: The human brain evolved to conserve its resources in everyday life, so as to save them for the life-threatening situations where they are really needed.  Thus, your brain will usually take the "easy way out" because any other way creates mental discomfort.  This discomfort can be detected with functional MRI, where during some kinds of decision-making, the parts of the brain light up that cause anxiety (such as the amygdalae), and the parts that produce reward-feeling rev down (ventral striatum).  

What kind of decisions?  Those that go against the norms of one's peer group, or seem likely to cause friction with people one cares about, or will entail risk to something you value: security, belonging, comfort, reputation.  The result is that we try to minimize this discomfort by looking only at evidence that confirms what we already believe and discounting evidence that doesn't.  Your brain wants consistency and certainty. It even wants to "coast" if it can: Some studies show that for between 30 to 50 percent of our waking time, most of us are mentally "elsewhere,"  operating on automatic pilot.  This is why, for instance, you find yourself driving to your job when it's Saturday and you meant to go to the dry cleaner's.

Alas, in order to be just, or creative, or even fully aware of the world, consistency and certainty often must be sacrificed.  This may be why artists are so often prone to depression.  The world looks more chaotic to their driven, not-at-ease brains.

There is a lot more about neural activity in this fascinating book.  Highly recommended. 


TheOFloinn said...

"the parts of the brain light up that cause anxiety..."

Another way of looking at it is that anxiety causes parts of the brain to light up. Reading fMRI images is like reading ink blots. There is wide opportunity for error, and the same patterns are not always observed in each case. We are so accustomed to equating correlation with causation that we overlook the significance of that.

Statistically, these correlations are based on small non-representative samples of WEIRD people. (WEIRD = Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic -- mostly young college students -- who make up 96% of the study participants in these sorts of studies.)

a researcher is more likely to falsely find evidence that an effect exists than to correctly find evidence that it does not. We…demonstrate how unacceptably easy it is to accumulate (and report) statistically significant evidence for a false hypothesis.

But I have experienced that autopilot phenomenon. I once walked home from the dry cleaners with the bags over my shoulder and came to only when trying to insert my key into the door. Basically, if a human is a rational animal, for a short time, the rational part was on a shelf somewhere. (Actually, it was thinking about a story or some statistical point.)

To any Aristo-Thomist the fact that we operate on autopilot most of the time is direct and obvious. (Aquinas used the example of a scholar absent mindedly stroking his beard while in thought.)

Nancy Kress said...

I meant to say "the parts of the brain that indicate anxiety" -- a big difference!