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Who's in charge--you or your brain?

When you look at this picture, a special area of your brain kicks in to process it. An area tuned just for recognizing faces (or anything that kind of looks like a face). And you don't get a say in this. That face-processing area is so primitive, in fact, that your brain can detect an angry face even before you consciously know it's a face!
And here's the strangest one of all--from neurologist Richard Restak's book Poe's Heart and the Mountain Climber--"After damage to the right inferior parietal cortex... the affected person frequently loses the ability to perceive or respond in any way to things in the opposite (left) visual field. But that doesn't hold for angry faces... Despite the affected person's usual inability to consciously see and describe anything on the blind side, his or her amygdala responds when the experimenter projects an emotional picture to that side--evidence of a split between conscious and unconscious perception."

So there are scenarios in which you might not even be able to see the face, but your brain still reacts to it! This is a life-saving skill, of course, and studies have shown that a neutral or relatively pleasant face doesn't cause the same reaction as, say, a face where the person shows disgust. BabyfaceSeeing another person crinkle up their face in disgust has probably saved a gazillion lives throughout history ("Oh! I think I'll take a pass on that meat...")

And that's just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to your brain responding to things beyond your conscious awareness or control. That's why it surprises me how little the average person knows--or even cares to know--about how their own brain works. Most of us go through life under the illusion that we're in charge of our all of our reactions. And it's just not so.

That's one of the reasons that all four of us on this blog (Eric, Beth, Bert, and I) have tossed our televisions forever. (More on that later)

Beth's recent post about the latest issue of Scientific American Mind reminded me of how the four of us have such a strong interest in the brain, as brain users, not brain scientists. Her post also mentioned the marvels of the new brain scanning technologies like fMRI, and that struck a very personal chord for me that I'll share in this blog, despite my aversion to revealing personal details.

[Sidebar] My interest in the brain began when I had my first grand mal seizure at the age of four. The first in a long series that dominated the rest of the my childhood until inexplicably (but apparently quite common), the frequency of seizures dropped dramatically by the time I was in college. But when I was young, my mother had a very tough choice to make--accept that I would be one of the millions for whom the cause is unknown, or submit to a series of potentially life-threatening procedures to try to find out. Painless and harmless brain scans weren't an option! My seizures were severe and frequent, but usually not life-threatening, so her option (and later mine) was to weigh the odds. She decided to wait it out, knowing that there was a risk my brain "storms" were caused by something that could ultimately kill me, like a brain tumor. I still remember the day as a teenager when my neurologist finally said, "Well, since you made it this far, whatever is causing your seizures probably won't kill you." Fortunately, I am one of the lucky ones who has long "auras" before every seizure, which means I have a minimum of three hours advanced warning. So the chances of my having a seizure while driving, skiing, climbing, or even just standing on a cement floor (which would suck to fall onto) are virtually zero. I can do anything without fear of having a seizure, which is why I'm allowed to have a driver's license (although I've had to do battle with the state of California over this). [/Sidebar]

Enough true confessions. Back to my point:
Everyone should know how their brain really works, because it--not you--is running the show!

I'm making a distinction between the conscious "you" and your brain, of course, but that's because it matters. Remember, while you live in the 21st century, your brain still reacts as though you're in a far more primitive time. You're dealing with a legacy brain.

The more you learn about the brain, the more you learn all the ways in which you're being manipulated by things like ads (especially ads), pop culture, the words and behaviors of those around you, movies and television, peer pressure, political spin, news media, beauty, and ulimately--chemistry. Hormones. Neurotransmitters. What's floating around up there naturally, and how you might alter it with alcohol, food, drugs, sex (or pictures of sex), or even by just sitting in a room with a television turned on!

In our books, we exploit some of this to try to manipulate or "trick" your brain into thinking that what you're trying to learn is as important as where that next mammoth hunt will be. Because remember, while you're thinking, "This is important! I have a test next week!", your brain is thinking, "This is SO not life-threatening." Your brain looks for certain telltale shifts (even subtle ones) in chemistry, and if they aren't there, your brain has a special agent (creb-2) that's working overtime to STOP you from remembering. It's trying to save bandwidth for the really important stuff... and you aren't in charge!

You and your brain, it seems, are not "of a mind". You often want one thing while your brain is leading you to something else. Like another beer. Like that piece of cheesecake. Like that terribly attractive but oh-so-wrong-for-you potential mate.

Anxiety is another place where this becomes a huge issue. People have been found suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from merely watching the images of the twin towers falling. And we all suffer from at least one form of irrational fear (or at least mild anxiety) that we consciously don't want, but can't seem to shake.

But learning about the brain can offer hope there too. In the Restak book I mentioned earlier, he talks about some promising studies that have shown ways to reduce anxiety not by trying to get you to forget, say, a bad experience, but by using techniques that can cause you to transform or "reappraise" the experience. He mentions an experiment carried out on "normal" volunteers who where given a shock to the wrist after seeing a yellow square on a screen. Naturally, the subjects became tense when they saw the yellow square. But the experimenter gave them instructions to think of "soothing images drawn from nature at the instant they saw the yellow square. In other words, the volunteers were encouraged to reappraise the situation: focus on a soothing image, rather than the fact that the square preceeded a shock."

What was really interesting about the study is that they were able to prove that the subject's "physiological arousal" (heart rate, etc.) was reduced when the did the reappraisal, and more significantly--the brain scans showed that their brain's fear response was reduced! They showed more "thought" activity in the prefrontal cortex, which corresponds to a dampening of the amygdala (the primitive part that reacts to things it perceives as threatening).

I'm going to Japan on business later this week. The moment I learned of the trip, I should have been excited. But I instantly felt my body tense up. Because the last (and only) time I was in Japan was just over ten years ago, and I woke up on my first morning in Tokyo to the sounds of screaming, terror, sirens, and I was alone there. I looked out my window and saw a scene from a sci-fi/horror movie--people in something like space suits, surrounded by ambulances and, well, you probably guessed that my first morning there involved a WMD--the sarin gas attack on the subway just below the hotel.

But I wanted to go on this new trip, so I pulled out Restak's book where I had dog-eared the part about reappraisal, and that's what I've been doing. I focused on the cherry blossoms that are in bloom right NOW in Tokyo, and the way the breeze felt on my skin as I sat in a park across from the hotel the night before the disaster. I thought of the beautiful garden at the Zen center in Rochester where my friends got married, and focused on the magical places in Kyoto I'm planning to visit at the end of the trip. And it's working!

Fortunately, this is a fabulous time to learn about your brain because of the resources springing up from recent interest in what some are calling "recreational neuroscience". But I don't think it's just for recreation. I think it can mean the difference between a happy, alive, mindful, awake, passionate life and... one that isn't. And there are some great references including the Scientific American Mind magazine and books like the super cool (if not always practical) Mind Hacks (you can link to the book from that blog).

If you're a marketer, a programmer, a designer, or a... human, you owe it to yourself to learn what your brain is doing so you can make conscious choices whether to be manipulated. In a movie, you decide to be a willing co-conspirator to "suspend disbelief" and fall into the story. But what happens when the network news is trying to suck you in with the "if it bleeds it leads" approach? What about advertising? Political messages? Culture? Peer pressure? Family pressure? Finding our how your brain works is in many ways the key to taking back your life.

An earlier edition of Scientific American Mind, Volume 14, number 1, has an article on Television Addiction that I wish everyone on the planet would read. You can still be in charge and have television, but it's extremely difficult. Personally, I didn't feel up to the challenge, and it wasn't worth what it does to your brain and body, so I dumped mine (as did the others here). If you haven't tried it, it's like 1,000 pounds of stress and weight being lifted off your shoulders. You'll most likely lose weight, and more importantly--you'll more likely read more, get more done, spend more time with other hobbies and, oh yeah, have more sex. : )

(Yes, that part about sex was manipulative, after all--isn't that what advertisers say or at least hint about virtually everything? But in the case of TV, it's true! Trust me on this one ; )

Posted by Kathy on April 11, 2005 | Permalink


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Reappraisal is the key to successful dieting. All you have to do is replace those unconscious thoughts that arise upon seeing a box of sticky, soft, gooey donuts. Instead of allowing your mind to respond to those donuts with a chorus of "Oooo, I love Boston creme..." you simply deliver an internal "shock": "Yuck, it's some vile thing my dog found on the compost heap again."

Posted by: Luddite Geek | Apr 11, 2005 8:38:26 PM

"[Y]our brain is thinking, 'This is SO not life-threatening.'"

Amen to that! When I was younger, one of the *only* ways to get my consciousness and my brain on the same page for studying was to wait until the very last week/day(s)/hour(s) before an assignment was due or a test was given. Then I'd cram like no tomorrow! (Oh the amounts of caffeine and ephedrine -- yeesh!)

By the time the test/due-date rolled close I was so convinced of my own impending scholastic doom that I was in a state of mild/moderate panic. It was hell on my body and my morale, but by god, I was gonna make my brain think there was tiger after me!

Oddly, enough, it worked. If I timed it right, I'd get A's, if I didn't, I'd get C's -- or worse.

Effective? Yes! Sustainable? No.

Posted by: jmc | Apr 11, 2005 9:43:02 PM

Great article :)

Like jmc, the "brain is thinking, 'This is SO not life-threatening.'" line really rung true for me in terms of procrastination. So to get things done sooner, I have to convince myself to panic sooner, I guess.

You focused on anxiety - what about physical pain? Recently, when I've had a muscle that's hurting, feet aching, etc (something that I know is not actually causing damage), I try to think "Why does this hurt?" I only have high school biology so my explanation may not be accurate, but I tell myself that it hurts because nerves are sending messages to my brain that my brain is interpreting as pain. So next question - why is it interpreting it as pain? Well, if it isn't something that is actually doing damage to my body, then really it's interpreting it that way for no good reason. So I try to force myself to interpret it differently. And I find that if I do concentrate on my interpretation of the pain, I can lessen it - but only as long as I'm thinking about it. There doesn't seem to be any reconditioning happening. This also kind of works for temperature - feeling too cold or too hot.

Posted by: Karen | Apr 12, 2005 12:09:05 AM


“I try to force myself to interpret it differently.”

I as well. I usually try and abstract pain away as nothing more than an electro-chemical impulse. Visualization helps – but I have to concentrate on counteracting the pain. I can't will away pain or sensory unpleasantness via mental 'background processes'.

Mental will hits a total brick wall when any itchy sensation comes into play. I get pretty wicked hay fever every August and the itchy eyes and throat just drive me bonkers. I might be able to withstand the sensation if it was on a limb or something, but on one's face? All those nerves hard-wired straight into the brain? Too much, too much.

It's totally all about perception. Reality became more massive, murky and hypnotizing once I made the cognitive switch to understanding that senses merely provide representations/abstractions of Reality. (Instead of thinking senses are Reality.)

Two facts provide the best tools by which to hack/patch the brain. One, the brain accepts sensory input at face value the over-whelming majority of the time. And two, that synaptic pathways can be atrophied, re-routed or strengthened depending upon need/use/will.

(An aside, I've found that coding and abstaining from television have helped my visualization and meta-cognitive skills immensely.)

Posted by: jmc | Apr 12, 2005 12:48:19 AM

Where's Susan Greenfield when you really need her? Does she blog?


Posted by: Wally | Apr 12, 2005 5:44:17 AM

What a terrific article, thanks. Allow me to recommend the book Mind Wide Open by Steven Jonhson (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0743241657/103-9764778-1106238?v=glance) It's a layman's guide to the brain, and a rolicking good read. Highly recommended if you're interested in an overview of the hows and whys of what's going on in your head.

Posted by: Peter Flaschner | Apr 12, 2005 7:50:25 AM

In response to another comment about dieting -- read the "The Diet Cure" by Julia Ross... to quote the review on Amazon: "The gist of The Diet Cure plan is that food allergies, hormonal irregularities, blood sugar swings, and thyroid dysfunction, among other factors, cause biochemical imbalances that lead to food addiction and weight gain, and that these problems can usually be lessened or eradicated with the proper diet and supplements."

The supplements, like L-Glutamine, GABA, etc., are turned into brain chemicals/hormones that your body is lacking... Craving sweets and/or alcohol is your body trying to to make up for their lack.

The writer quotes an study where a doctor found that his patients on traditional "will-power" diets were gaining weight eating only 700 Calories a day, but with supplements and a more balanced diet, were losing weight eating more than 1400 Calories a day.

Posted by: keith ray | Apr 12, 2005 8:47:56 AM

"[Y]our brain is thinking, 'This is SO not life-threatening.'"

While reading this line, like jmc, I thought about people becoming a wreck before tests.
A process that by very different means, drugs/food\pain/panic, leads to alter the chemicals in your brain so that creb-2 doesn’t work.
Panicking and digestive problems are not the same as eating ice cream from the tub or taking speed; but it all seems to be part of a reappraisal process involving different levels of consciousness.

Posted by: Giovanni | Apr 12, 2005 9:20:07 AM

You can read the article on TV addiction here:

Posted by: Justin | Apr 12, 2005 11:26:12 AM

I built a PVR and fast forward through all my television commercials...how safe am I?

Posted by: Joshua Herzig-Marx | Apr 12, 2005 11:36:12 AM

Great comments everyone! Thanks.
Peter, good recommendation on Mind Wide Open -- I second that (and I know Beth does too). I've just started "A Whole New Mind" and it looks good too.

Joshua: skipping the commercials helps in one area, but doesn't make you safe. News broadcasts, and even news *promos* can actually be the worst part of television (there's a lot about this in the Restak "Poe's heart... " book--the news promos are designed to invoke anxiety, and there are ways in which this can cause actual *physical* damage to your brain, under certain circumstances, because of the high resolution visual images, especially. They have found that listening to the same news events on the radio, without the visual stimulation greatly decreases the negative effects, because you don't carry around the detailed visual image in your head. The violence/sex/whatever in television programming is, for adults, not really the problem at all. So you could, for example, watch DVD movies -- as a "destination activity" (something you choose mindfully as opposed to just having TV on) is much better (I'd be lost without Netflix).
I recommend reading the article that Justin posted the link to, because it'll give you a better idea of some of the other things that just sitting down to watch TV can do. There are some hints about this in the Mind Hacks book as well...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Apr 12, 2005 12:02:37 PM

OK, this may sound like a stupid question, but I am seriously curious. Everyone knows guys check out women, look them over, focus on their breasts while doing this, etc. etc. Is this a case where our brains are doing things below our conscious control so we should be excused for this, or are we all just horndogs that could control it if we really wanted to?

Posted by: anonymous | Apr 13, 2005 8:20:30 AM

lots of cross cutting with Malcolm Gladwell's blink. Thinking consciously can be hard to do.

Posted by: james governor | Apr 13, 2005 9:01:56 AM

Your comments about television remind me of a song by New Model Army, "Deadeye" (Deadeye, apparently, is the literal translation of a Native American word for television, according to the songwriter, Justin Sullivan)

Posted by: Matt Moran | Apr 14, 2005 1:19:28 AM

A fascinating perspective on the brain and un/ consiousness is Joseph Chilton Pearce's,The Biology of Transcendence - just started it and expect it will expound on the recent science about the 'brain' in the heart I heard about in his recent Vancouver lecture - just finished his '70's classic book, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg. A fascinating explanation of our own 'egg building' which then will crack on occasion when we have a thought or AHAA from 'left field'..... it is the crack that lets the light in.

Posted by: wendy weir | Apr 15, 2005 1:48:49 PM

I know I'm late to this discussion, but the "this is So not life-threatening" impulse strikes a chord. If it is the brain's way of managing power, it's not a bad idea to take it on board and study with less agitation. In other words, forget the test is important but study for it mindfully and calmly, and your brain should be tricked into focussing instead of getting distracted.

Posted by: genevieve | Nov 13, 2005 4:23:54 PM

This was fantastically informative and I'm thinking about using some of your information in a persuasive paper I'm writing about how Television should be censored becasue it affects they way we act. I've been trying to convince my parents for years to get rid of our tv and they won't listen to me... maybe I'll have them read this.

Posted by: Molly Swanson | Oct 9, 2006 3:57:47 PM

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