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10 Ways Your Brain Makes you Dumb

10 Ways Your Brain Makes you Dumb

The human brain is an impressive yet bewildering thing. Although it only weighs about three pounds, this organ processes information amazingly fast. The slowest speed is 260 mph. That’s the same speed as the fastest car on Earth! Our highly evolved brains are what differentiate us from other animals. However, as much as our brains help us function, we’re still susceptible to being tricked.

Here are 10 ways our brains make us surprisingly “dumb.”

1. You Filter Out More Information Than You Realize

We all want to think that we are aware of everything, all the time. However, the truth of the matter is that we are not. Our brains use about 20-25% of our body’s energy, so it’s important that our brains act as efficiently as possible. In order to do this, the brain filters out a lot of “noise” in our environment, focusing our attention on the things we deem important by using the reticular activating system (RAS).

Have you ever considered buying a particular car and then noticed it everywhere? It’s not that everyone bought that same exact car the same day, your RAS was in action and was focusing your attention on that specific car. Since your brain was focused on the new car purchase, your RAS took note of it, making you even more aware of that car in your environment.

The RAS is an essential network in the brain that helps us parse through the massive amount of information we are exposed to everyday. Since it’s such a great tool, it’s surprising to realize that you’re filtering out a lot of information.

2. Your Brain Can Be Primed

Do you ever go shopping, flip over a tag, and find a great deal you can’t resist? The shirt you’re considering buying used to be $200, now it’s only $20 — it’s a no brainer! Is it really a good deal, or is your mind primed to think so because you saw the giant “x” over the original price? This shows how an initial stimuli can have huge affects on our subsequent decisions or behaviors.

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In an interesting study, subjects were primed with words related to elderly people. After hearing those words, the subjects were found to walk slower when leaving the experiment compared to the control group who wasn’t primed. The same study showed that when subjects were primed with words related to rudeness, they were more likely to interrupt the experimenter.

3. Too Many Options Lead To Indecision

You may think that having a variety of options is a great thing — it’s not. Although it may seem advantageous to have a variety of options to make the best decision, your mind actually gets overwhelmed, thus decreasing your odds of actually making a choice.

Have you ever been browsing Netflix at night and just felt totally paralyzed? We’ve all been there, flipping through the endless choices presented to you. That’s the paradox of choice in action.

A fascinating experiment in a grocery store examined a stand with 24 different varieties of jams for shoppers to test and buy. Those who sampled got a $1 coupon towards any purchase. The 24 jam display got a lot of interest as people wanted to taste-test different flavors. A similar table was set up the next day, but this time it only had six jams to try. Although the smaller table wasn’t as popular, when it came to buying the jam, people who saw the smaller display were ten times more likely to purchase.

Why is that? Having too many options can lead to indecision or inaction. Even worse, when we face too many options we feel even less satisfied with the choice we made.

4.  You View Your “Future Self” As A Stranger

Do you ever pig out on a Friday, then justify eating your way through your weekend because on Monday you’re going to start that new diet? We tend to think of our future selves as totally different people, causing us to weaken the connection of the pain or sacrifice that our “future self” will have to go through just to burn off those weekend calories.

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Numerous studies have shown that our brain thinks of our future selves as entirely different people. So much so, we may as well be thinking of a celebrity! In a study conducted by Hershfield and his colleagues, when imagining their future selves a subject’s neural activity was similar to when they described celebrities like Matt Damon! The experimenters took this a step further, asking their subjects to either look at themselves in the mirror or look at a photo of their future selves (by way of digitally making their face look older). Afterwards, they were asked how they’d spend $1,000, those exposed to their “older self” said they’d put twice as much money into a retirement account compared to those who saw their current self in the mirror.

5. You Grow Attached To Objects You Touch More Often

Every try spring cleaning but get stuck holding onto things with sentimental value because you just can’t fathom throwing them away? Research has shown that the more often you touch something or spend time with it, the more value you place on it.

This study shows that the more time someone spends with an object the more “pre-ownership attachment” they will associate with it. They figured this out by allowing subjects to examine and touch basic coffee cups prior to being auctioned. When they were auctioned off, those who spent more time examining the cup were more likely to overbid on the coffee cup. That’s why retailers want you to try clothes on, take a test drive, and eat taste-testers.

6. Lack Of Willpower Leads To Bad Decisions

Willpower is like a gas tank. It starts off full but gets depleted throughout the day, by either making decisions or exercising self control. What happens when that gas tank is running low? Well, you probably guessed it, it’s way harder to exercise self-control and make good decisions.

In a remarkable study, researchers studied over 1,000 court rulings regarding whether or not the judge granted a criminal parole. They found that the number one factor in whether the criminal would get parole or not was based on the time of day… not their crime or their record — the time of day!

They figured out that the earlier in the day the trial took place, the better chances the criminal had at getting parole. It turns out that the judges suffered from “decision fatigue” towards the end of the day. The easy decision to make after being fatigued was to simply say “no.”

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7. You Don’t Panic When You Should

Have you ever felt a minor earthquake in the middle of the night? You may wake up alarmed for a few seconds, but then you roll over and fall back asleep. That’s the normalcy bias at play. This bias occurs when there’s a disaster going on and instead of getting into “fight or flight” mode you convince yourself that everything is totally normal, leading to inaction.

This bias leads to a lot of unnecessary deaths and injuries such as Hurricane Katrina where residents never thought the levees would break. When they actually did, they were stuck at home, faring the worst.

Scientific hypotheses suggest this occurs because it takes our brains 8-10 seconds to process information. Adding stress to the equation slows this down even more.

8. You Make Bad Assumptions

The “availability heuristic” is a mental shortcut we take. It’s when we believe something is common place if we have an example to reference or are already familiar with it. For example, if we have a lot of friends with iPhones, we assume that everyone has iPhones!

An experiment from the University of Zurich showed that people who had been affected by flooding (or knew someone who was) were more likely to perceive higher risk about flooding probabilities in their neighborhood compared to those who never had such experiences. Those affected by flooding had memories “available” to them to reference, causing them to perceive a much higher risk than those who never experienced it, even though the probabilities were exactly the same.

9. You Use Emotions In Making Decisions

Even though we’d all like to trick ourselves into thinking we make decisions based on black and white logic, research shows otherwise.

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Thomas Damasio, a University of Iowa neurologist, has shown that decision-making happens in more than one part of your brain. Prior to his research, most neuroscientists believed that decision-making only occurred in the rational and most highly evolved part of our brains, the prefrontal cortex.

Although that is the case, there’s another interesting part of the brain at work: the limbic system. This area is a much older part of our brain responsible for emotions. It’s the part of our brain where we make value judgments regarding experiences and memories. These various parts of the brain work together to make decisions.

10. Your Memories Are Wrong

Do you and a friend ever recall a memory you shared, but argue over the details? When you guys first heard about 9/11 it was at your house… or was it at school… or the gym?

You’re 100% sure he was at your house, but he’s saying it was at school, and you are both sure of it. It turns out that the more emotional a memory is, the more confident we are around recalling that story accurately.

In 1986, the Challenger space shuttle exploded. It was a memorable day for many Americans. The next day, Ulric Neisser, a Professor at Emory, handed out a questionnaire to his students asking them to reflect on where they were and who they were with, as well as other details at the time of hearing about the Challenger explosion.

Two and a half years later, Professor Neisser handed out the same questionnaire to the same group of students. The average accuracy of these memories was a measly three out of seven. However, what was even more fascinating is that when asked about how “confident” they were in recollecting their memory the average rating was a whopping 4.17 out of five!

We tend to be confident about an event and the details surrounding it even though we are actually way off. This is because we tend to have “tunnel vision” on the major event and the minor details associated with the memory tend to be forgotten.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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