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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.

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