Understanding Your Brain

My last post about happiness was about why success isn’t a good way to be happy, and three things that are.

In the comments, Johannes Spielmann said this:

Johannes: Great article!

For a more nuanced (and scientifically proven) view on the topic, have a look at this Google Tech Talk by David Rock.

The video he links, the one I’m about to embed, has changed the way I think. It’s like being given the owner’s manual to your brain after 29 years of muddling along with the default settings. It’s not only spectacularly improved my understanding of how people behave and why we feel what we feel, it’s actually made me more consistently happy.

It’s an hour long, which I know isn’t cool on the internet, but I promise you won’t regret watching it. If you don’t have time, I’ll summarise the most mind-blowing things in it below.


Concentrating makes it hard to have ideas

Our brains store a crazy amount of information. If you’ve had that nostalgic flood of memories on seeing a toy you had at 5 years old, you have some idea of just how much is kept in there. But logical thought, the kind we use when we’re focusing on a problem and trying to solve it intelligently, is all handled by the prefrontal cortex.

That’s a tiny area of the brain with an even tinier capacity for information – it can only hold a small amount at once. So we load the info about a problem into it, then crunch that information in a logical way.

When we do that, the rest of the brain isn’t doing much. All our activity is focused on logically processing that chunk of data we decided was relevant. Which is good if that really is everything relevant to the problem and the solution. For a problem like 8+12, it probably is.

But for more real-world problems, we can’t cram the vast amount of data that might be tangentially relevant into that tiny prefrontal cortex. We have to pick a small set of information and process just that. And while we do, all that other information goes unexamined, because the rest of the brain is being neglected.

This dog is trying to distract you from the fact that I have no relevant images for this post. Is it working?

When we stop concentrating on the problem, the rest of our brain wakes up, all that information is available to us, and we stop thinking in such a focused, rigorous way. So we’re not being totally logical, but we do suddenly have the capacity to notice weak connections between pieces of information stored in that vast databank in the rest of our brain – a capacity we didn’t have thirty seconds ago.

With what we’ve already figured out logically, often new bits of information light up in the rest of our brain as being relevant. And that, briefly, is why you have your best ideas in the bathroom.

It’s when you stop concentrating that non-obvious ideas can strike, and in complex problems these are often the really game-changing ones.

Even small worries and threats destroy your ability to think clearly or well

The big, powerful, illogical subconscious can’t do much when your prefrontal cortex is busy focusing on something. But both are completely crippled any time there is even the slightest possibility of harm coming to us. We have evolved to be ridiculously skittish, and at the smallest danger our limbic system completely takes over. Instinct, basically.

In modern life, it’s often useless or inappropriate. And while it’s engaged, we lose the ability to think rationally, we lose the ability to have inspired ideas, and we even lose basic functions like short term memory. We instantly and massively suck, and it lasts for ages.

Social threats have the same effect as physical threats

The traditional model of psychology says that survival concerns are ‘primary’ – deeper, stronger and more instinctive – and others, including social concerns, are secondary. Nice if we can get them.

The behaviour of the brain doesn’t correlate to that. Our reaction to social threats, like insults, is not only as strong as our reaction to physical threats, it’s the same.

If you can’t focus on your work because your leg hurts, you can take an asprin, the pain goes away and you can focus again. If you can’t focus on your work because someone called you incompetent yesterday, you can take an asprin, the pain goes away and you can focus again.

Our five main social concerns spell out SCARF

So we’re incredibly affected by social threats, but what’s a social threat? What do we need, socially, that we’re scared of losing?

Status: What other people think of us, and how they treat us. If people will think less of us for something, we are terrified of it.

Certainty: How sure are we that our current status will continue? If we hear some redundancies are coming, we haven’t lost any status yet, but suddenly Certainty takes a huge hit, and we feel a massive, instinctive threat.

Autonomy: Is my fate in my own hands? If you propose putting me in a position where I’m heavily dependent on someone else, I feel threatened.

Relatedness: Do I care about this person or thing? Friends and blood relatives have high ‘relatedness’, and we feel empathy for them and listen to what they say. Everyone else is perceived as an enemy by default: we don’t instinctively feel their pain, and we don’t even picture what they’re saying unless we consciously try to. The only exceptions are attractive people, babies, and everyone – when we’re drunk.

Fairness: Pretty self-explanatory. If you give a raise to the new guy, I get a Fairness threat even though my status hasn’t gone up or down.

Understanding threats makes them cripple your brain less

This panic effect, the way a threat consumes your brain and cripples your ability to think clearly, is partially avoidable.

I’ve often had a feeling of dread, or panic, or anger, without quite being able to articulate what my problem is. So that’s what my brain does, for the next hour. I don’t listen to anyone or get anything done, I just re-run the narrative of what’s going on in my head until I can sort of cobble together a whiny complaint about it that I could conceivable say out loud if I decide to speak up.

In an hour.

I write for a living, and I studied putting words to abstract things for three years at uni. What the hell is wrong with me?

What was wrong with me was I didn’t have names for the kinds of threats I feel when something potentially unpleasant happens socially. I didn’t understand why they occurred or what they wanted from me. That meant not only did they affect me more, the way they affected me also hindered my ability to give them names or start understanding them.

When you do have a quick, rough guide to the basic types, your brain is dramatically better at compartmentalising them and retaining the rest of its normal functions. All you need to think is “Eek – OK, that’s my certainty being threatened,” and you won’t revert to an angry, idiot animal state controlled by your limbic system. You have a sec to think “OK, I know why that is, let’s deal with it.” And that, too, dramatically reduces the brain-shrinking panic of the thing.

That’s why this talk went beyond interesting and all the way to life-improving, for me. Thanks, Johannes!

24 Replies to “Understanding Your Brain”

  1. I watched the video when it was first mentioned in Johannes’s comment, and it had a similar, positive effect. So thank you from me, also.

    If only all the time I spent staring at the web were half as worthwhile!

  2. It’s why I find claims that science removes life’s beauty or interest or what-have-you so disgusting. People in the exact same circumstances can suffer so much less with such a small amount of information on why their brainmeats feel the way they do. No, sweetie, she doesn’t hate you; she’s not yet capable of understanding hate. She said that because she wanted to sit at the popular monkey troop’s table today, and high-ranked monkeys force middle monkeys to bite lower ones because making middle monkeys feel guilty makes the high monkeys feel secure. Your phrase ‘piloted animal‘ is still the snappiest summary I have for this moral viewpoint.

    As ever there’s some synchronicity to be found here. Two days ago your interview with Chris Taylor and Danan Davis had me ‘reading against it’ about the dark sides of persistence that Taylor was unspeaking at every moment, which led me to a(nother) masturbatory inner Two Minutes’ Hate against predatory Facebook Amway games, which led me to think about games which rather than negative or neutral value, actively improve the quality of the user or the user’s life. That finally led me to reread Phill Cameron’s post about how his exposure to the exquisite verbs in paranoid backstabbathon Solium Infernum codified, and therefore buffered, a stressful IRL confrontation.

  3. That was actually really good, I have so little respect for most of those management coach types, but this guy clearly knew what he was talking about and actually had the cognitive science to back it up.

    That trick he talks about in the questions afterwards, with noticing when your brain slips between its data-input and narrative modes – focusing on absorbing data input is something I typically do a lot when I’m bicycling somewhere (generally between my home and the university), but after watching this video I deliberately focused on returning to input mode when I slipped into narrative mode, and it was actually a pretty zen exercise.

    I felt the same way about all his other advice – like, it’s stuff that you actually sort of know, but you haven’t really been conscious about it before. It feels like now that you know about it, you can use it much more effectively.

    Thanks for the link :-)

  4. I can’t help but think that this could revolutionise gaming, or at least gaming ability. If, for example, you’re playing Company of Heroes or any game really, you can see a problem and you ‘load it into your thinking slot’ and solve it. While you’re being annihilated somewhere else. Or you can relax, click around a little bit and mentally see the big picture, judge how your certainty level feels about a particular action and act on it.
    Tom, i’m hoping you’ll use your new found happiness and way of thinking to write another GalCiv diary ;)

  5. Tom, in the last post you wrote about happiness (Analysing Happiness), I mentioned in the comments that you should check out The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell, as he came to a lot of the same conclusions about happiness that you have. I’m basically going to say it again: check out The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell!

    A lot of the ideas his ideas overlap this talk as well. So I’m sure you’d enjoy it.


  6. OK, finally watched the video. I was actually pretty disappointed. It’s a perfectly good talk by a good, responsive presenter but your summary is better. Of course Rock obviously deserves the credit for pulling together the research and staking his name on the claims. I wouldn’t have gotten half as much out of it without the strategy guide; the really important parts mostly get short shrift, and what focus there is is turned toward productivity and managing for productivity.

  7. I knew all of what he was saying, just not in the way he was saying it.
    The problem I have is deciding how to minimise a threat, a possible threat, or even an imagined threat.

    It’s that part that trips me up. Otherwise you can rationalise what is happening, but then, didn’t he say that rationalising was on the opposite side of good? :) It’s all very interesting.

  8. I guess this is why I find it easier to come up with art ideas with some music going. Back at uni I would be practically flogging myself mentally all day and (most of) the night to come up with something creative, inspiring and amazing. Putting in some ear buds and taking a step back often produced those sparks I needed.

    Pentadact: This is a really cool site by the way, I love the posts and the comments section is actually worth reading. I have one question though; your site was originally called James (if I remember correctly), why was that?

  9. Thanks Jason, now I know. I have also learnt what the End key can be used for, which I probably should have guessed. It’s also interesting to see how Tom’s writing has changed/matured since then.

  10. Saving your reverence, Tom, having looked back I find it more interesting to consider what hasn’t had to mature. How many people have an affably-presented chain of arguments in the introduction to their blog? How many, within a few posts of starting, choose to tell a funny story well? And how many look at the existing ecosystem, establish a specific metric for posting or not posting, then stick to it for seven years? To use strangers’ time so respectfully in professional writing is remarkable; to do so on one’s personal blog may indicate a pathology.

    It would have been more obscure but funnier if I had made that ‘The Names of “James”‘. Duly noted.

  11. It does suck in comparison, but it is something of a Pratchett situation, to a lesser degree.

    I mean, taken alone, the Colour of Magic is a reasonable clever, perfectly alright fantasy parody, and Strata is top tier dime store Sci-Fi.

    Then you flip through them after reading Night Watch, and, well, they don’t look half as good by comparison.

  12. Hi Tom,

    There’s a little addendum I wanted to add to your great summary, it comes from the questions and answers at the end:

    Basically, a great way to reappraise a threat is to use humour, think of the funny side of the situation or laugh at the threat. This will dampen down your threat response helping you deal with the situation more positively.

    Thanks Tom, (in a robotic voice) “Good Job!”.

  13. With no timestamps there’s no such thing as a necropost unless I mention it whoops.

    ‘I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.’

  14. So I finally got around to checking out Russell, per Mr. Dan’s recommendation. Don’t worry, I know better than to discount him out of hand or anything, but I did have to blink and smile sadly at the end of the very long, but very first paragraph:

    ‘…This pursuit [of pleasure] is conducted by all at a uniform pace, that of the slowest car in the procession; it is impossible to see the road for the cars, or the scenery, since looking aside would cause an accident; all the occupants of all the cars are absorbed in the desire to pass other cars, which they cannot do on account of the crowd; if their minds wander from this preoccupation, as will happen occasionally to those who are not themselves driving, unutterable boredom seizes upon them and stamps their features with trivial discontent. Once in a way a car-load of coloured people will show genuine enjoyment, but will cause indignation by erratic behaviour, and ultimately get into the hands of the police owing to an accident: enjoyment in holiday time is illegal.’

  15. …and I finally got around to reading to the finish. To coin a phrase, Nope. Yes, Russell does mention obsession stupidity for a couple paragraphs and basically boils it down to ‘sleep on important stuff’, but there’s no mention of any of the other points here and none of the practical application.

    In exchange for this heapin’ helping of almost nothing, QoH is an utterly infuriating book. There’s a structure to almost every chapter:
    1. ‘I will here refrain (I say yet again) from discussion of wider economic or societal prescriptions, instead focusing on what an individual can do in the present circumstances.’
    2. ‘Some people are unhappy because of X!’
    3. ‘Anyway, here are the sweeping economic and societal prescriptions which could eliminate this problem. On to the next topic!’

    It’s certainly true that he was ‘ahead of his time’ in becoming a hippie dormroom revolutionary a few decades ahead of time, but I remain unimpressed.

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