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:

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

Top Articles on Brain Health and Neuroplasticity

Top 10 Brain Teasers and Illusions


Subscribe to our e-newsletter

* indicates required

Got the book?