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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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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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