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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.

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