You’re reading this because you know it will give you a way to get smarter. Each time we read something new, an opinion, some fresh research or someone else’s thoughts, we synthesize the information inside our own mental world, taking something that is immaterial and invisible and incorporating it into the electrochemical reality that is our brain.
Every time this happens, the brain changes. Every change it makes, affects its performance. Enough positive changes result in a brain that is much faster, more efficient and capable of achieving more of what it wants. Negative changes have, of course, the opposite effect. In our ability to do all this we are unique and it has come at a price.
The expensive tissue hypothesis argues that there is a direct trade-off between the size of our brain and the size of our muscles that goes all the way down to the cellular level. It appears that not only do we have large brains at the expense of having larger muscles but we also have specific pathways designed to feed those brains at the expense of feeding our muscles with genes that act as fuel transporters unique in proportion, to us.
emotions play a role in every decision we make
This is what it means: We stand at the pinnacle of creation, not because of the technological might we have achieved (that is just an expression of our brain’s abilities) but because of all the creatures around us we are uniquely designed to understand how we think and then, through thinking, improve it. That’s akin to a bird in flight, understanding the principles of lift and aerodynamic design and changing its wing shape to become faster and more fuel-efficient.
Neurogenesis the creation of new neurons in specific areas of the adult brain, and neuroplasticity the ability of the brain to form new, complex, neural networks, mean that when it comes to awareness and cognitive capabilities, we are our own architects.
What’s Stopping Us?
When it’s apparently that easy to upgrade our neural capabilities, develop better decision making processes and have greater control over our lives, the real question is what’s stopping us?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is: us. Despite our best efforts we are highly emotional beings and emotions play a role in every decision we make. Because emotions arise out of stimuli that are external to us (or at least external to our consciousness) they control us. This means that in most cases when we are faced with a decision, we are already biologically and psychologically locked into a process.
For example, we come across each other as strangers at the bar and you bump into me making me spill my beer. In a highly rational context this is the result of a spatial mistake by one or both of others that allowed us to miscalculate distance and timing and inadvertently bump into each other. Logically, the primary focus for both of us here would be to first, recalculate the distance and timing, recalibrate our mental representation of the surroundings so we don’t keep bumping into people and then maybe say “Hey, I am sorry. My fault.” To each other.
This is not what usually happens. One will say: “Hey, watch it!” and the other will bristle and maybe ask aggressively: “What’s wrong?”. Both will experience a constriction of blood vessels, rising heart rate, a slight tightening of the chest and the deadening of any higher cognitive function that might provide some risk assessment – physical symptoms that accompany the “fight or flight” response.
How we get from an accidentally spilled drink to a possible bar fight is the subject of many a talk and hundreds of movies, but the gist of it is that emotionally we are prepared to respond this way because we are biologically primed to see the incident as disrespect of our person and personal space (which we require to ensure our safety and preserve our social status) and therefore respond with a measure of hostility.
In that situation we see the problem. We have, in an instant, gravitated from the human body dynamics and the fluid mechanics of spilling a drink to the social and neurobiological causes of alcohol-related aggression. To make matters even worse, at the point where we are suddenly ready to turn a pleasant evening out into a primal hand-to-hand combat all higher executive functions that might help us regain control and inhibit our violent behavior, shut down.
The same thing happens when we are under stress and have to make a decision, when we face multiple choices and tight deadlines and the decision we make is going to be critical or when we have to make a decision in a very tight frame of time. The environmental and psychological pressure we face, elicits a neurobiological response from us that locks us into a specific type of behavior (which is why we know spilled drink in a bar = bar fight).
To make matters even worse, because these responses are to an extent, hardwired in us, they have a relatively low activation threshold (it takes a lot more conscious effort to smile at someone who’s spilled your drink in a bar than punch them) which means they are the closest thing we have to an instinct.
Is There Any Hope?
While it may sound that there is little hope for any of us at this stage, things are not as bleak as they seem. Unlike any other organism on the planet we are capable of arresting and then changing our instinctive reactions if we are aware of the triggers that set them off, the symptoms that signal the process has started and the context in which they may arise.
Vigilance, in other words, married to cognitive training allows us to create additional mental resources that enable us to modify our behavior, better control our neurobiology and help our brain maintain higher executive functions even when under stress.
The rub? It takes time and conscious effort to achieve. It takes an awareness of why we are failing, in the first instance, and a real commitment to change. When there’s no easy fix the journey to achieving what we want has to start in a structured way at a measured pace.
It’s possible to rewire your brain. So, really, the ultimate question is how badly do you want to change?
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