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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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