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Your Brain: Capable of Greatness, Hard-wired for Survival

(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.)

A new prod­uct is about to hit the mar­ket, and I think you’ll want to take notice. It’s called the “Super Novum.” Shaped like a slightly over­large motor­cy­cle hel­met, the user places it on her head and pushes just one but­ton to get things started. She doesn’t know it yet, but she has just given her brain an amaz­ing advan­tage over all the other brains walk­ing around out there. Some of the fea­tures she’ll expe­ri­ence include greatly reduced selec­tive attention—no more miss­ing the details! Broader framing—nomorementalmyopia! And infor­ma­tion that chal­lenges her beliefs can drive on in for an objec­tive evaluation—no more con­fir­ma­tion bias! Plus, the Super Novum comes in a vari­ety of col­ors and pat­terns to match its user’s unique personality.

Even if such a device existed, I won­der if we’d really want it. Would it be worth short-circuiting parts of our brains to avoid the sorts of cer­tainty foibles dis­cussed in this chap­ter? Prob­a­bly not. A bet­ter ques­tion might be, if the brain craves cer­tainty, then why not sim­ply give it what it wants? Why not abide the urge to feel “right” if that’s what makes the brain happy?

Before I try to answer those ques­tions, I want to tell you a brief story about my wife, who likes jump­ing out of air­planes. Just before we got mar­ried, she decided that her urge to leap from a per­fectly sta­ble plane had been put off long enough.We found a rep­utable sky­div­ing out­fit in north­ern Vir­ginia, so that she could kick off what was sure to become a life­long pas­sion for death-defying sports. From my per­spec­tive, this was just short of insan­ity. “So you’re going to step out of a plane at 12,000 feet?” I recall asking—the real­ity of the sit­u­a­tion finally hit­ting me—as we were review­ing the lia­bil­ity dis­claimer forms (with state­ments like, “You acknowl­edge that engag­ing in this activ­ity can result in your sud­den death.”). For her, every­mo­ment lead­ing up to the jump was sheer ecstasy. Not that she wasn’t ner­vous (I think only a zom­bie wouldn’t have some ner­vous reac­tion before jump­ing thou­sands of feet above sea level), but the exhil­a­ra­tion of doing what she’d wanted to do for so long—to take on one of her ulti­mate challenges—outpaced her anx­i­ety by a fur­long. She went on to have a suc­cess­ful jump, and I man­aged to watch the whole thing with­out clos­ing my eyes.

We have to appre­ci­ate that our brains weren’t born yes­ter­day. We have mech­a­nisms to warn of threats and guard against insta­bil­ity because they have worked for a very long time. We wouldn’t be here with­out them. In the same way that any sane per­son feels appre­hen­sion about jump­ing out of an air­plane, our brain puts the organ­ism it con­trols on alert when dan­ger looms—be it tan­gi­ble or intan­gi­ble. But we have to know when to over­ride the alarm and take the less com­fort­able path anyway.

Research con­ducted by a joint Amer­i­can and Ital­ian team of psy­chol­o­gists found that peo­ple with less need for “cog­ni­tive clo­sure” were typ­i­cally more cre­ative prob­lem solvers than their coun­ter­parts. In other words, those who are able to work past their brain’s appetite for certainty—its need to shut the clo­sure door to pre­serve stability—are more likely to engage chal­lenges from a broader vari­ety of van­tage points and take risks to over­come them. Jump­ing out of the air­plane even when our brain is shout­ing “Stop!” is some­times exactly what we need to do. That’s the energy that fuels sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery, tech­no­log­i­cal advances, and a range of other human pursuits.

Which is not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t also lis­ten to our brains. It’s not always advan­ta­geous to act against our neural incli­na­tions. Some­times a nar­row frame is right for the sit­u­a­tion, and some­times dis­al­low­ing new infor­ma­tion is nec­es­sary. We have to dance with our instincts to fig­ure out when to leap or when to stay on the ground. That’s the chal­lenge of being human—of hav­ing a big brain capa­ble of great­ness with hard-wiring evolved for survival.

To con­tinue the conversation…

  • To read full tran­script of Live Q&A with David DiS­alvo on the lat­est cog­ni­tive sci­ence of how our minds work, you can Click 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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