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Your Brain is Not Your Friend

Your Brain is Not Your Friend
Your Brain is Not Your Friend

    A mind is a terrible thing. Whether because of the brain’s internal structure or the way social and cultural pressures cause our minds to develop and function, in the end the result is the same: minds that are not only easily deceived and frequently deceptive in their own right, but when caught out, refuse to accept and address their errors. If you have a mind — or even half a mind — you might be best off losing it entirely. Barring that, though, there are a few things you should know about the enemy in your head. Before it hurts someone.

    I see red pandas.

    In 1978, a red panda escaped from the Rotterdam zoo. Hoping to enlist the public in finding this rare and distinctive-looking animal — it looks a bit like raccoon crossed with a small bear, but bright red — the zoo contacted the papers and stories ran in the local press with descriptions and contact information in case the poor creature was seen. Just as the story ran, the panda was found, dead.

    Over the next few days over a hundred red panda sightings were reported. Keep in mind, red pandas are indigenous to tropical India, not temperate Holland. There is no chance that some other red panda was being seen and reported to the authorities. It’s also not likely that people were hallucinating, either. What is likely is that people were seeing some other animal or something else they couldn’t identify immediately, and interpreting it as a red panda.

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    When confronted with an unknown phenomenon, the brain immediately attempts to impose some kind of pattern or meaning onto it. Apparently, the brain can’t stand not knowing what something is. What happened in Rotterdam is that the news stories primed people to recognize anything mysterious or otherwise unexplainable as “red panda”, despite the unlikeliness. In other conditions, the template for the unknown might be an angel, Sasquatch, a UFO, faeries, or a will-o-wisp. Since the brain is working with so little evidence, it essentially makes it up, making our observations highly suspect.

    Speaking of Priming

    The suggestability of the brain extends to more than just the unknown and unusual. As it turns out, even everyday events can be shaped by subtle cues in our environment. In one study, two groups of subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire, and offered a crumbly biscuit by a research assistant afterward. In the room where the survey was administered to one of the two groups, there was a hidden pail of water with a splash of cleaning fluid, filling the air with a slight scent.

    The survey was a McGuffin; the real object of the study was to see what subjects would do after they ate the crumbly biscuit. What happened is this: the participants in the room where the smell of cleaning fluid hung in the air were much more likely to clean up the crumbs left by the biscuit than the others.

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    A subtle effect to be sure (they ought to try it with teenagers!) but a good example of what psychologists call “priming”. Priming calls on deep memory associations in the brain — like the association of the smell of cleaning products with the act of cleaning — which seems to trigger responses without any conscious awareness or intention on our part. Isn’t that great?

    Hey hey, good looking!

    It’s not just priming that can subtly and unconsciously affect the way we behave; as it happens, the beliefs other people have about us, even if they don’t know us, can also affect our behavior. For example, psychologists set up telephone conversations between a man and a woman. Neither could see the other. Before the conversation started, the man was shown a photograph of the woman he was going to meet on the phone. However, the photograph was actually picked randomly, and depicted either an attractive woman or an unattractive one (how this was determined I don’t know).

    Men who believed they were talking with an attractive woman were much more friendly, active, and open during the conversation than men who believed they were talking to an unattractive woman. What’s more, the women — who did not know whether their partners believed they were attractive or unattractive — responded differently depending on the beliefs of their partner. Women who were believed to be unattractive were more detached, cold, formal, and even rude than those who were believed to be attractive.

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    Clearly these women were picking up on and responding to unconscious clues in the way their male partners spoke to them. When men were friendly and talkative, the women responded with warmth; when men were distant, women responded accordingly. But the subjects themselves did not report any difference in the way they thought they had acted — for them, they were just “normal”.

    But there’s more. In interviews before the conversation took part, the men were asked to describe what they expected their partners to be like. Men who thought they were about to talk to an attractive woman said they expected her to be warm, open, friendly, and so on — which in most cases is exactly what she was. Men who expected their partner unattractive thought they would also be cold, distant, and unfriendly — and lo and behold, she was. In our minds, attractive people are better people — and apparently thinking makes it so.

    “Nothing more than a dog’s breakfast”

    Well, that’s brains for you — ” three and a half pounds of blood-soaked sponge” in Kurt Vonnegut’s colorful estimation. Somehow, this little bundle of nerves and fat manages to guide us through our days, most of the time without getting us killed. Along the way, though, these little quirks — and a host of others, which I’ll revisit at a later date — can cause a lot of trouble. Good people’s talents are overlooked because we don’t like the looks of them. The worst aspects of our personalities are brought to the fore because of a subtle environmental cue, like a briefcase on a table. We imagine things that aren’t there — and get offended when others have the audacity to question our observations. We find ourselves doing things with no rational explanation for why were doing them — and even worse, sometimes we don’t find ourselves doing them, we do them without even knowing!

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    It all seems rather hopeless, but I’m optimistic. Knowing how our minds get in their own way, we can catch these behaviors and put them right — or put them to work for us. It takes work — individual work for sure, and in some cases the work of our entire societies. But I’m convinced we can think of ways to minimize the negative effects and maximize the positive.

    If only we didn’t have to rely on the same brains to figure that out…

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    Last Updated on November 18, 2020

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
    Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

    1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
    2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
    3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
    4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
    5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
    6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
    7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
    8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
    9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
    10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
    11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
    12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
    13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
    14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
    15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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