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.
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!