2012-11-13

Don't Believe Anything You Believe

Our brains, it seems, are not always on our side. First, the human brain is highly reactive -- it triggers a "fight or flight" reaction when neither physical aggression nor running away is at all helpful. Second, it's divided into very different left and right parts that often "don't play well together."

Third, there’s the way the brain makes memories. Memory does indeed play tricks on us. It’s so far away from being anything at all like a photographic record of what happens. The hippocampus is in charge of storing memories, and that’s part of the limbic system – the emotion system of the brain. In other words, you remember things when you’ve had an emotional reaction to them. You only remember what is colored and distorted by your emotions. Then you recall the memory at some point when your brain thinks that prior experience is pertinent – so the application of the past event to the context in which you are remembering it distorts it further. In fact, if the circumstances are right and the information is plausible, completely false “memories” can be implanted – and our brains tend to retain false memories longer than accurate ones.

Fourth, our beliefs across the board are shaped by many things other than reality. We’re more likely to believe what we’re told:
  • by a family member, or
  • by a someone with power and status, or
  • by someone who’s attractive, or
  • by a member of our in-group, or
  • if it confirms what we already believed, or
  • if we wish it were true.
Other principles by which our brains are predisposed to operate include:
  • I am luckier than most other people.
  • Other people think pretty much as I do.
  • Any event that happens near and soon after some other event was caused by the first event.
  • Inanimate objects have person-like qualities.
  • My senses aren’t merely triggered by external events but actually map and mirror the outside world accurately.
  • Things in my memory actually happened.
  • The information that happens to catch my attention is also the most relevant and the most accurate.
  • The more anger I have when I express a belief, the more justified the belief is.
  • The vividness of detail with which I imagine a possible future event is proportional to the probability the event will occur.
Our brains are so unreliable at forming beliefs that you really can’t believe anything you believe.

Fifth, pain. Our brains are out to hurt us more than we really need to hurt. Pain has both a sensory component and an emotional component. We feel the hurt – and that will often also trigger an emotional reaction, and in particular it’s the fear centers that are triggered. It’s the fear, the aversion of the sensation rather than the sensation itself that constitutes our suffering. “Nerve fibers carry pain signals up the spine to a key branching point in the brain called the thalamus.” From the thalamus, the signal is split and sent to two places. It goes to somatosensory cortex which tells you where on your body the pain is: foot, hand, rib, wherever. And the thalamus also signals the cingulate cortex – a part of the limbic, emotion system -- which tells you it hurts. “People with damage to the cingulate cortex often report that pain doesn’t hurt. The cingulate gives the pain sensation an urgent quality that demands attention.”

Our earlier ancestors needed that – and sometimes we need that. But once we’re already doing everything appropriate to address the cause of the pain, we don’t need it to keep screaming at us like it does.

All those are ways that our brain does us wrong. On top of all that, it then creates the illusion that we’re in charge: that there is such a thing as an “I”, and that "I" am in charge of making the decisions about what I do from one moment to the next.

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This is part 2 of 5 of "Making Peace with Your Brain."
Next: Part 3: "I Meant to Do That"
Previous: Part 1: "Your Brain Is Out to Get You"