The Achilles’ Heel in Your Head

Have you ever wondered why some people—and maybe we’re talking about you—are so adamant about some things? It might be a political position or your thoughts on diet and exercise, music, drunk drivers, tuna fish—the list goes on.

And if you were asked what informed your particular stance, answers might include your spiritual faith, personal life experience, and/or what you’ve learned from others through a wide variety of sources. Your belief system is subjective, and like your fingerprints, unique to you. As far as storage and access go, you hold the keys.

But although the system is subjective, what’s less subjective is the architecture it’s built on, according to many neuroscientists.

The thought is that the brain attaches emotional meaning to some events, in the form of memory markers. The outrage that accompanies your feelings of hearing about a hit-and-run drunk driver on the 10 o’clock news helps to both inform your opinion and store it in your memory for recall later.

Collected together, opinions create belief, which leads to a rule guide that you can then apply to new situations. In the science community, these are known as heuristics. Your brain catalogs them and makes them available to you for those eyeblink-fast decisions. This saves you from having to consciously invent new guidelines for every situation you find yourself in.

In other words, your brain conserves energy by applying previously established rules to new events. This works pretty well most of the time. In essence, your brain is gambling that a variety of life situations are similar enough that ‘a one size fits all’ approach will get the job done.

Our brains rely on, and would be lost without, our network of prebuilt beliefs to help maneuver us through our day. Unfortunately, this kind of system means that we bias towards simple black-and-white answers, often choosing not to examine the nuance of a decision or argument that might put our belief at risk.

This is why soundbites are so popular; they cater to the brain’s entrenched understanding of the world. We decide quickly but shallowly: this political party is the good guys and the other is the bad guys.

It takes more energy and a much more complicated reasoning process to seek out the grey area of a decision or argument. The only way to teach your brain how to do it is to actively question your own beliefs. That can be a messy business, which can lead to uncertainty—one of very things your system is designed to help clean up. So there is reassuring safety in locking down on a belief and adamantly refusing to open it up for assessment.

Of course, a little certainty isn’t necessarily bad. It might even make perfect sense, provided you’ve taken the time to work your way through your network of opinions and the nuances that drive an argument or decision.

But why are black and white answers so terribly seductive? The simple answer: it’s what our brains are hardwired to do. For many of us caught in the swirl of our day, relying on preconceived beliefs just saves time and energy.  Who has time to spend digging into the reasoning, or lack thereof, behind our decisions?

Our heuristics have allowed us to flourish and populate a large portion of the planet, and yet as a species, the over reliance on unexamined beliefs is also our collective Achilles’ heel.

Anarchists in Your Brain: The Neuron Story

The structure of the brain is often described as an immense tangle of electrochemical connectors called neurons. These neurons number around 100 billion in the average adult, and their ability to connect and disconnect lets us drive a car, gargle after brushing, watch TV, read Shakespeare, play chess, and a myriad of other things including playing the piano, if indeed you play.

Even if you don’t play, just thinking about playing the piano is making your neurons work. Their activity is frequently compared to a series of switches flipping on and off. They do this at amazing speed, sometimes firing in clusters of 10,000 or more at a time.

This image—a myriad of switches, waiting obediently and dronelike for activation—is something we can wrap our minds around. The sheer numbers and speed of neural operation is difficult to contemplate, but this concept certainly seems easier to picture than, say, the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics.

After all, that’s how computers operate, and isn’t the brain essentially a superpowered, complicated organic computer?

Not so fast, says Daniel C Dennett, Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. In a piece entitled “The Normal Well-Tempered Mind”, he depicts the neuron as “a little agent with an agenda…much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch.”

Billions of years of evolution have endowed our brain cells with far greater capacity than simply electrochemical slaves toiling in the brain’s pitch-black darkness.

Neurons appear to create relationships and alliances, just as quickly dissolving those ties along lines we do not, and may never, understand. Dennett points out that you don’t have to worry about the circuits in your laptop going rogue. In the brain, we might call this switch insurrection, an errant thought or, on the more extreme end of the spectrum, cancer.

We can observe neural firing, but explaining the activity beyond that becomes problematic. We don’t possess the kind of language that might accurately ascribe some form of primitive intention or desire to neural actions. (The oddity of this last sentence only serves to accentuate the problem.) Dennett postulates that the ‘free wheeling aspects’ of neurons gives rise to everything from imagination to creativity to mental illness.

The very idea of neural plasticity and the brain’s ability to reorganize its cellular structure after a learning event or trauma suggests that neurons must be more than mere slave switches. In Dennett’s view, they aren’t part of some hierarchical controlled systems bureaucracy, but rather a collection of individuals coming to together in a more democratic way, with just a tinge of anarchy thrown in for good measure.

This explains a lot of things, including why your actions are not always in sync with your intentions, because as most of us might now appreciate, keeping your neurons in line can be a full time job. By comparison, your laptop is pretty well behaved.

The Happiness Epidemic: Catching a Habit

What do behavioral traits and infectious diseases have in common? According to researchers James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, quite a bit.  Let’s suppose that in your thirties, you become obese. We might assume that your jelly donuts and lack of exercise has finally caught up with you. Fair enough.

What might surprise you is the contagious effect your new weight is having on your peer group.

Your friends are 57% more likely to gain weight as a result of hanging out with you.  Not only that, but their friends, the ones not in your immediate circle, are 20% more likely to gain weight as well.

The same contagious effect seems to be true about smoking. According to Massimo Pigliucci in Answers for Aristotle, quitting smoking means “your friends have a 67% chance of quitting too, and their friends a 36% chance; this is also true of alcoholism, depression, and the effect is even present for happiness (meaning subjective well-being) itself!”

‘Wait a minute,’ your rational brain might already be protesting, ‘there’s no cause and effect here, but mere correlation. After all, aren’t my friends probably living in a similar socio-economic bracket, therefore frequenting Dunkin Donuts too, essentially living my lifestyle?’

From that perspective, it would stand to reason that you’d see similar tendencies in your friends across the board. Yet Fowler and Christakis were able to document that the patterns of change aren’t simultaneous. They happen over time, like the spreading of a disease.

And if habits broke down purely on socio-economic lines, then your address would be one of the best indicators of your behavior. Surely if any collection of people could be expected to act the same, it would be those with access to the same grocery stores, gyms, bars, and restaurants. However, the behavior of your friends is a much better predictor, even if your friends live across town.

Why? Mimicry is an essential aspect of our lives. The association and comfort of being part of a group is well documented. And what is a group if not individuals brought together by shared experiences, held together by commonality?

As Fowler and Christakis discuss, these commonalities go beyond a nicotine habit or a number on a scale. One of the traits that seems the most influenced by who you spend time with? Happiness. Seventies acoustic troubadour Cat Stevens once sang, “If you want to live high, live high, and if you want to live low, live low” but these studies suggest you might first want to seek out other pals who are living how you want to live.

If Fowler and Christakis are correct and behavioral traits can spread like the common cold, the idea of frequent hand washing, and general accountability for one’s disposition, take on a whole new significance.

Save a Life: Take a Nap

Are you sleep-deprived? If you’re a working adult in America, I can probably answer the question for you: yes. Or at least, statistically, you have an 80% chance, according to a January 11 New York Times piece by Maria Konnikova.

On the fence about whether or not you qualify? Well, do you constantly feel tired during the day, or do you often find yourself falling asleep within five minutes of lying down? Chances are you’re not an efficient sleeper; you’re just not sleeping enough.

That’s not just murder on your coffee budget, it’s bad news if you’re planning on learning anything. According to a 2011 UC Berkeley study, sleep is an essential part of holding onto memories. That’s when bursts of brain waves called “sleep spindles” network up to shift fact-based info from the hippocampus, which has limited storage, to the more long-term storage of the prefrontal cortex. The more spindles, the more learning is enabled.

Unfortunately, these spindles are much more active during the later, non-REM portion of slumber, so if you’re sleeping 6 hours or less, it’s harder to form long-term memories.

It’s also bad news if you’re planning on not crashing your car. When you put sleep-deprived people in a driving simulator or give them a hand-eye coordination test, they tend to perform the same or worse as drunk people. (And if you’re considering swigging down a reasonable-seeming bottle of beer before a drive, keep in mind sleep deprivation magnifies the effect of alcohol.)

Getting 6 to 7 hours of shut-eye a night? You are twice as likely to be in a car accident than someone averaging 8 hours or more. If you’re more of an insomniac, and you can only manage 5 hours or less, that accident is now four to five times more likely for you than it is for your friend the eight-hours-a-night-sleeper.

It’s a widespread problem, as Konnikova explains. The average American today sleeps 2 hours less per night than their counterpart from 100 years ago. Between 50 and 70 million Americans are suffering from one chronic sleep disorder or another.

We are a nation of night owls, and a nation of drivers. The results are clear, and a little terrifying. Letting sleep-deprived people behind the wheel leads to at least 100,000 car crashes each year, killing an esimated 1550 people. However, since self-reporting is inherently flawed and many, many people don’t even know when they’re too tired to function, most experts suspect the real figure is much higher.

The damage isn’t just happening on the highway: a 2004 study at Harvard Medical School found that hospitals could reduce their medical errors by up to 36 percent just by capping out doctor work shifts at 16 hours a day, and 80 hours per week. Factor in commuting, showering, and the necessary time to wind down from a shift, and this still doesn’t even leave the 7 to 9 hours of sleep recommended by medical science for peak mental performance. It’s just enough rest not to stagger around like a zombie, accidentally adding salt to your coffee—or worse.

For those of you looking to minimize the casualties in your life, consider these tips for better sleep from the National Sleep Foundation.

  • Exercise can lead to better sleep (but remember to exercise at least three hours before bed; physical activity raises your heart rate and your body temperature, the last thing you need when you’re trying to wind down.”
  • Before bed, avoid anything that stimulates the body: caffeine, nicotine, and spicy or heavy meals
  • Develop a relaxing pre-bed routine that doesn’t involve screens (light can be disruptive)
  • Maintain a relatively consistent bedtime and wake-up time. Use as much natural light in the morning as possible, and in the evening, signal to your body that it’s time to sleep with a dark, quiet, slightly colder room.

And if you’re really struggling to keep your eyes open on the highway, pull over and let yourself snooze for a while. The moment the sounds of the freeway start to feel soothing, you know it’s time to give in and get some sleep.

Why Your Mindset Might Be Throwing You Curveballs

Are you wired for success? And by “success”, I’m not necessarily talking about monetary reward.

In her paper “The Mindset of a Champion”, psychology professor Carol Dweck discusses the almost-professional baseball career of Billy Beane.

You might remember Billy Beane from Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball. Beane was the famous Oakland A’s general manager who enjoyed numerous successful seasons by combining competent scouting with a wonkish handle on baseball statistics.

Beane as a player is another story.  In high school, he was a natural athlete who enjoyed interest from professional teams in baseball, basketball and football. He was considered to be the next big thing, and yet his chosen career in baseball came up short. After stints with several different teams, he eventually washed out of the major leagues.

Was Billy wired for success as a big league player? Carol Dweck doesn’t think so. Dweck’s research focuses on the concept of mindset. The idea is that people’s brains are basically wired up through environmental interaction towards one of two mindsets.

To fixed mindset people, your abilities—or lack of abilities—are fixed traits, like your height or your deadly soy allergy. “In this view,” Dweck writes, “talents are gifts—you either have them or you don’t.” The fixed mindset sees setbacks as powerfully discouraging, since any bump along the way could be a hint you were never blessed with true talent.

What’s the other option? The growth mindset, which holds that people can cultivate and improve their abilities through hard work and learning. To those with a growth mindset, drawbacks and extra practice opportunities are simply part of the game. While the fixed mindset camp sinks their time into proving themselves, the growth mindset followers focus on improving themselves.

According to Dweck, growth mindset people tend to be more successful in a wide variety of endeavors because they demonstrate more grit in the face of adversity, and because sustained incremental improvement tends to pay off over time.

You may be like Billy Beane, born with exceptional talent, but like the tortoise and the hare parable, it’s the willingness to hang in there and keep plodding along on the road of self-improvement that eventually brings the win.

Unfortunately, Billy Beane’s natural talent combined with a history of being rewarded for skill over work ethic probably led him towards a fixed mindset. The reasoning goes something like this: superstars don’t and shouldn’t need to practice all that much. That’s why they’re a cut above, that’s what defines them as superstars.

The problem with this approach is that when adversity shows up, the ‘superstar’ has developed absolutely no mechanism for overcoming it. The need for additional help or practice is seen  as only highlighting one’s personal flaws.

The good news? Since mindset is just that, a state of mind, and since the plasticity of the brain means neural rewiring is an ongoing opportunity; Beane was ultimately able to pick up more of a growth mindset. Dweck believes this contributed to Beane’s eventual success as a GM with the A’s.

Interested in success? What mindset are you?