While looking for Samuel Barondes' Making Sense of People: Decoding the Mysteries of Personality at the local bookstore the other day, I also found a book by the title of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite by David DiSalvo (2011). This is his first book. I would have passed on this book if it wasn't for a "short review" on its back cover by Philip Zimbardo:
Here's the introduction:
So, I got the two books and I am now half-way through DiSalvo's book and finding it interesting to read and it is loaded with examples as similar to other cognitive books (and/or topics) being discussed here on this board."This book is a well-researched and effectively argued guide to uncovering the reasons why we so often think and act in ways that undermine our best interests, and it's also full of knowledge about why humans manipulate each other. If you want to know more about why you do what you do, and how to avoid becoming the victim of someone else's manipulation tactics, I encourage you to read this book."
Here's the introduction:
pages 15 to 25 said:INTRODUCTION
Hacking the Cognitive Compass
"What a peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call 'thought.'"
- David Hume, Dialgues Concerning Natural Religion
"There is always an easy solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong."
- H.L. Mencken, The Divine Afflatus
Our Brains Are Prediction- and Pattern-Detection Machines That Desire Stability, Clarity, and Consistency - Which Is Terrific, Except When It's Not
You enter the office on your first day of work. Nervous energy tingles through every limb, and you are as alert as a deer sipping from an alligator pond. This is not your "first" first day of work; you're started other jobs before, and these sensations aren't entirely new to you. But still, this job is new, and you're nearly as anxious about it as you were before your very first job years ago. There is, however, a major difference, though it isn't explicitly clear to you as you stroll down the central hallway of the office suite for the first time. But step by step, as you start looking into the offices you pass and absorb the surroundings, something begins happening that triggers a nascent thought: I'm going to be fine.
Why does this thought break through the electric jitter swarm and announce itself? What is changing as you make your way down the hall and begin ingesting the sights and sounds around you? While it's hardly obvious, your brain is doing some heavy lifting on your behalf. Everything you see, smell, touch, and hear is being processed, analyzed, and decoded. Your brain is doing what it has evolved to do, and it's doing it exceptionally well; so well, in fact, that you are starting to experience an emotional response that counteracts your nervous response. Your brain is determining that you have been here before. Not literally, of course, but your brain is structured to make sense of stimuli and patterns in any environment you step into, and it's finding patterns in this new environment that overlay well with others you have experienced. Your brain is arriving at a determination that these patterns are familiar enough that you will be able to make reliable predictions about what is coming next in this environment. As you begin meeting people in the office, more stimuli are processed, more patterns are detected, more is added to the webs of information your brain creates about everything you experience. The more the day goes on, the more at ease you become about most things in this new environment, and those things that have put you on guard have been flagged as potentially dangerous and requiring elevated attention. During the course of one day, your brain has mapped out a new microworld that you will inhibit for as long as you have this job. It will be added to and subtracted from, shifted, adjusted, and contorted - but all these movements will occur within a framework derived from recurring patterns that your brain has identified, coded, and categorized.
Years of neuroscience research have led to the current understanding of the brain as a prediction machine - an amazingly complex organ that processes information to determine what's coming next. Specifically, the brain specializes in pattern detection and recognition, anticipation of threats, and narrative (storytelling). The brain lives on a preferred diet of stability, certainty, and consistency, and perceives unpredictability, uncertainty, and instability as threats to its survival - which is, in effect, our survival.
The problem is that our brains' evolved capacity for avoiding and defending against these threats - a capacity that has allowed our species to survive and thrive - has slew of by-products, all tightly woven into our day-to-day thinking and behavior. This book will discuss several of them, each of which, ironically, trip and ensnare us while making our threat-anticipating brains "happy." The pages ahead include explorations as to why:
If we could live our lives without bias, distortions, and delusions involved, the world would be truly idyllic. But we can't, though we're largely ignorant of this fact. We function much of the time with an air of mystification about why we do what we do, and why we think as we think - not because we are dull-witted. Must the opposite: only a brain advanced enough to engage in complex thought and self-reflection is susceptible to the fuzzy mystification that obscures from view how our minds really work.
- We crave certainty and the feeling of being right.
- We rely on memory to buttress that feeling.
- We're prone to assigning meaning to coincidence, and making causal links with scant information.
- We want to feel in control.
- We try to avoid loss.
- We regulate our moral behavior to feel "balanced."
- We attempt to circumnavigate regret.
- We generalize when specificity would be more beneficial.
Before we go much further, though, let's take a couple steps back and discuss where we have been, cognitively speaking, and where we are going.
Hacking the Misunderstandings of Mind
For any analysis of mind to be useful, it must defer to what we know about how our brain function. Admittedly, this knowledge is limited, but it has grown enormously in the last few decades, providing an understanding that few thought possible a century ago. If you had, for example, told an early twentieth-century neurologist that technology would develop in the next one hundred years that allows paraplegics to control robotic arms with their minds, you'd probably get a sneer, if not a snicker. Science fiction novels and comic books featured similar technology, but serious scientists wouldn't have staked their careers on such things being possible. We now know they are more than possible - they are happening. Likewise, we have learned enough about the brain to know that the mind-body dualism of old is an outmoded explanation. It's still tempting for many to yank the workings of mind from their biological moorings, chiefly because the complexity of thought seems too large an enigma for our brains to contain. As one biology professor at my alma mater put it, "How can billions of on-off switches result in something as complex as the mind?"
Cognitive science has not exhaustively answered those sorts of questions, but in the course of diving into the brain's mysteries it has discovered that the questions themselves were never really on target. The "on-off switch" analogy, for instance, is the result of a category error. By starting with the belief that the brain is essentially a fleshy and compact electrical device - albeit a complicated one - it's impossible to arrive at an explanation for mind that passes anyone's laugh test.
Cognitive science challenges our categories by breaking down the mental silos we build to make sense of things. Consider the temptation to pinpoint thoughts and emotions in well-defined parts of the brain. It's neater to believe that anger, for instance, launches from one central place than to accept that it doesn't "live" in any single place in the brain but is rather the result of multiple brain regions cross-activating in less-than-tidy ways.
This is an especially hard realization to accept when it comes to memory. Where does the memory of riding a roller coaster at Six Flags when you were ten years old reside? Because our recollection of the event seems more or less complete, we want to believe that it must exist that way on a bookshelf in our heads. When we want to revisit the memory, we pull the book from the shelf and turn to the right page. We now know that memory doesn't work that way, and, in fact, your memory of the hairpin curve and corkscrew loop doesn't really reside in any single place in your brain, nor is it in any way complete.
These understandings are all quite messy, and the science underlying them doesn't satisfy our hunger for airtight answers. We jump back into categories to fill the voids because not having answers is unnerving, and so it should be. Since the very organ that defies explanation evolved to make sense of our environment, it's perfectly understandable that we'd become frustrated by the brain's silence about its own inner workings. And yet, the reality is that you and I can carry on this discussion precisely because the amazing organ in our heads yields this thing we've come to call mind. Or we could more accurately say that mind is not something produced by the brain, but that which the brain does. Said still another way, the brain's activity - and, indeed, the activity of our nervous system in total - is our mind. To quote neuroscientist Simon LeVay, "The mind is just the brain doing its job."
For the better part of a century, we have steadily moved away from the idea that the body (including the brain) and mind are separate entities - a belief popularized by what the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes labeled the mind-body problem, or "dualism." Where dualism went wrong, to paraphrase the contemporary philosopher John Searle, was "to start counting in the first place." But the reason for the "counting" - the bifurcating of brain and mind - is easy enough to see: for as long as humans have been able to think about it, we haven't liked the alternatives. If mind is what the brain does, then it can be reduced to biological processes. And no matter how complex these processes are, they are still the workings of flesh, blood, cellulose, and sinew. How can we - the magnificent, above-common-nature creatures we believe ourselves to be - be tethered so crudely to nothing more than what some neuroscientists call wetware (the biological corollary to computer hardware)? That's the challenge to our self-understanding that cognitive science research presents us with, and it will only become stouter as more revelations about how the brain works come to light.
Hacking for Better Answers
With dualism behind us, what's in front of us? The comfort of locating the mind apart from the wetware we carry around in our skulls is gone, so what, exactly, should replace it? The answer is central to the argument I'll be making throughout this book. We have entered a period of self-understanding only vaguely imaginable before the new wave of neuroscience and cognitive psychology research opened the door and began pushing us through. We are only at the beginning of this period, and caution is warranted about drawing hasty conclusions from a body of research still in its infancy. But we are definitely on a new path to self-understanding, and there is no returning to the backwater refuge of dualism. In this new period, when we speak of thought, we are speaking of the currency of mind - the very stuff of the brain's relentless activity. The dualistic division, figment though it was, has collapsed, and with it died a thousand misconceptions of mind.
What this all points to is a fantastic opportunity - an opportunity to credibly figure out why we do what we do, and, just as important, decipher how we can alter thought and behavior inconsistent with our best interests. If that statement strikes you as having an air of "self-helpness" about it, let me correct the perception in advance: I believe that the new wave of cognitive research actually undercuts a great deal of self-help advice, and will continue to do so in the years ahead by showing just how vacuous, groundless, and fraudulent much of that advice really is. The fog of misunderstandings about the brain and mind has allowed self-help snake oil to flow with impunity for decades, fueled by billions of dollars from well-intentioned consumers looking for answers. Cognitive science cannot provide a complement of concrete answers to replace those of the self-help industry, nor should the disciplines within psychology attempt to do so. What neuroscience and psychology can do, however, is make us smarter evaluators of our thought and behavior by shedding much-needed light on difficult questions. By using sound research as a basis for rethinking our behavior, we will be on steadier ground than much of the self-help industry could provide. We do not need more self-help - we need more science-help.
Hacking with Hunches
I'm a pragmatist. I have a penchant for what works and tend to critically scrutinize assertions that lean on a hunch. But I also understand and appreciate that sometimes a hunch is all we have, and though it's not the complete answer, it might eventually guide us to one. Research does not operate outside the world of hunches. The best researchers I have met are world-class hunch makers who sometimes craft the most creative and compelling research approaches from a hunch they had while eating breakfast. From a mere hunch, they sometimes arrive at a new understanding that a volume of previous research on the same topic somehow missed. My tour of such research leading up to this book has demonstrated to me that, at times, it pays to have faith in hunches.
Along with that faith, however, it doubly pays to check one's naïveté more often than one might think necessary. Part of what animates the self-help juggernaut and, more recently, the burgeoning industry built on hasty conclusions about neuroscience research, is a naïve approach to solving problems. We want answers. We want to listen to people who claim to have answers. We want problems solved and settled so that we can feel good about the resolution. It hurts to realize that more often than not, we can't have what we want, or at least not as we envision it. But naïveté is a formidable force with the power to trump healthy skepticism about what we are being told is "the answer." If we are not careful, a sincere desire to figure things out can lead to a naïve acceptance of well-heeded nonsense.
As an example, we must be extremely careful about drawing ironclad conclusions from brain imaging studies. The neuroscience community is far from united about what the activation of various brain regions means in all cases. A deep well of issues must still be addressed before the images can speak to us with clear answers. For instance, why, from one study to the next, do different regions activate under the same testing conditions? That the brain is such an effective foil of study replication is a true problem for researchers, and so far as to argue that we should use brain imaging in the courtroom as proof of guilt or innocence - a truly frightening prospect for a technology that is far from perfect. Many other issues could be mentioned, but suffice it to say that the business of science is not to provide us with settled answers that we can comfortably rest our heads upon at night. Indeed, we are wise to expect more new questions than answers from any research campaign worth discussing.
Having said that, the very process of scientific investigation - one study building on the next with confirmation or challenge - is hope-inspiring. What differentiates scientific assertions from the droves of poorly grounded self-help and pseudoscience assertions is this process. It demands far more of its executors because the process is, in a sense, bent on self-destruction. It doesn't trumpet the perfection of its outcome; it calls out for challenges that could very well undermine the outcomes and start the process anew.
That, in short, is where this book begins. Science is a tool - but it is the best tool we have to address hard issues about ourselves and our world. And I believe it is also the finest tool available to understand what is catalyzing our thoughts and motivating our behavior. If we are to credibly claim knowledge of why we think as we think, and do as we do, then we must engage these questions at their core, and accept the limitations inherent in this process of discovery.
A few upfront disclosures are in order. First, throughout this book, I will use an intentionally oversimplified metaphor of a "happy brain." Brains, of course, cannot strictly speaking be happy or sad or angry, nor can they want, desire, claim, or commit. In the words of New York City-based clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, Todd Essig:
What I wish to communicate with the metaphor of a happy brain is simply that under various conditions, our brains will tend toward a default position that places greatest value on avoiding loss, lessening risk, and averting harm. Our brains have evolved to do exactly that, and much of the time we can be thankful they did. However, these same protective tendencies (what I am calling the tendencies of a "happy brain") can go too far and become obstacles instead of virtues. Our challenge is to know when to think and act contrary to our brain's native leanings.Brains don't want, any more than lungs sing or knees set long-jump records. Brains are part of what makes people want and how we want. There is always a situated, contextualized, enculturated person between the brain and wanting.
Second, this is not a book about psychological pathologies. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist and have no interest in playing virtual therapist via a book or any other medium. I am also not a neuroscientist and would not claim to possess a grasp of neural dynamics that only a full investment in the discipline can provide. I am a science writer especially interested in how our brains work, and I am driven by a passion to communicate what I learn to a broader audience. I am also a public education specialist who has spent years devising and implementing strategies to boost awareness and catalyze behavioral change among particular target audiences - some narrow, some massive. I am closely familiar with the gap between knowing and applying. Most of us can grasp the substance of a problem and even be provided with a means for overcoming it, yet we often still fail. It is this gap between awareness and action that set me on a path to write this book. I wanted to know why humans so often do things not in our best interest. More specifically, I wanted to understand what attributes of our brains underlie the self-undermining thoughts and actions that plague every person born on this planet.
When I started this trek more than three years ago, I expected to focus mainly on cognitive bias - the well-documented throng of mental errors that so often cause us to stumble. But after working through reams of research studies and discussions with experts in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, I discovered an even more essential piece of the cognitive puzzle, and it has everything to do with what makes our brain "happy."
My investigation also led to a further conclusion: Simply knowing how our brains flop is not very useful. Most books about brain errors never get beyond this point. But what good is knowing, if we fall short of doing anything about it? We may know that we should take action to avoid temptation (for example), but applying that knowledge is a different matter entirely - and that, too, is part of our neural reality. This is the "gap" between awareness and action, and as a practical matter it's just as crucial as figuring out what makes our brains tick.
Finally, what you will find in the following chapters is a broad survey of topics. I have intentionally not dropped too low into the weeds with technical minutia, but rather have focused on what I believe are the larger issues relevant to the discussion. My goal is for this book to be informative, but also useful. I hope you will find it to be both as we continue our discussion in the pages ahead.