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What makes your brain happy and why you should do the opposite

(Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from David DiSalvo’s new book What makes  your brain happy and why you should do the opposite.)

Taking a position in any argument—large or small—is slippery business for our brains. We can have every intention of honestly pursuing an answer, yet still fool ourselves into thinking our method is objective when it is, in fact, anything but. Cognitive science has helped decipher this enigma with research on the theoretical mental structures our brains use to organize information, called schemata.

Aschema (singular form of schemata) is like a mental map of concepts that hangs together by association. For example, your schema for “school” contains associations between “teacher” and “books” and “subjects.” Each of those have additional associations; “subjects” is linked to “math” and “literature,” for example.  Cognitive science suggests that as schemata develop, the parameters for what information can be included tighten.

The reason for this is very practical:  We make judgments based on the linkages in our schemata. If the information didn’t hang together in a structured way, and if certain pieces of information were not excluded from the map, we’d find making even basic judgments extremely difficult.

Imagine that you’ve been in the workforce for about ten years and are interviewing for a job. The interviewer tells you about the job’s duties, the work schedule, the location, the wage, and other pertinent details. All this is important, but what’s equally as important is what you brought into the room with you. Your schema for, let’s call it “career,” includes a host of linkages that have developed with time that you draw upon to make judgments. Is the company you are interviewing with compatible with your career? Does the schedule fit, does the wage fit, does the size of the company fit, does the commute time fit? You may reasonably change your mind about any of these things, of course, but the point is that you did not enter the room as an empty bucket ready to be filled. You entered with a pre-established schema for “career” that serves as the platform for your judgments.

And therein lies the rub. Pre-established schemata guide our attention to evaluate new information, but they can also guide our attention to selectively ignore information inconsistent with the schemata.

To understand why, we have to go back to what makes the brain happy. When a well-established schema is called into question by new information, the brain reacts as if threatened. The amygdalae fires up (threat response), and the ventral striatum revs down (reward response). This is not a comfortable place for the brain. The supercharged clay in your head doesn’t like being on guard—it likes being stable. Ambiguity, which might result from considering the new information, is a threat.  We can either allow that threat to stand by considering the inconsistent information, or block it by dismissing or ignoring it. Or we might subcategorize the information and store it away as an “outlier” case; something that can’t be entirely ignored, but does not challenge or change the existing schema.

Cognitive science researchers are especially interested in how our brains maintain pre-established schemata. Successfully plumbing the depths of religious belief, for example, appears to hinge on understanding the ways our brains seek stability. Indeed, belief in general appears to have much to do with the brain’s penchant for homeostasis— defined by renowned physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon as “the property of a system that regulates its internal environment and tends to maintain a stable, constant condition.”

We humans are prone to divide belief positions by value.  Believing in God is more important than believing 2 + 2 = 4.  But neuroscience research has shown that in the brain, all belief reactions look the same, whether the stimulus is value-laden (like religion) or neutral (like math).  Whether the value we’ve assigned to a belief is—from our subjective vantage point—high or low, the brain wants the same things: stability and consistency. We seldom realize it, but very nearly everything we do is colored by this drive.

More on this next week…

  • On Sunday, December 4th: second excerpt, on Your Brain — Capable of Greatness, Hard-wired for Survival.
  • On Friday, December 9th, 11am Pacific Time/ 2pm Eastern Time: Live Q&A with David DiSalvo on the latest cognitive science of how our minds work. You can Register Now by Clicking Here.

David DiSalvo– David DiS­alvo is the Author of What makes  your brain happy and why you should do the opposite (Prometheus Books; November 2011). David is a science, technology and culture writer whose work appears in Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Mental Floss and other publications, and the writer behind the well-regarded science blogs Neuronarrative and Neuropsyched. He has also served as a consulting research analyst and communications specialist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several public and private organizations in the U.S. and abroad.

Transcripts of previous Live Q&As with Book Authors:

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