Brains — can't live with them, can't live without them. We would be nowhere without the marvel of evolution in our skulls, but sometimes our brains act in ways not in our best interests, and that's when we have to remember that not every message coming from the control centre is accurate or beneficial. Here are 10 examples with suggestions on what to do about them.
Telling you that you have more impulse control than you really do
Our brains have a bad habit of tricking us into thinking that if we've had some success (let's say with a diet, for example), then it's a foregone conclusion that we'll have more success. Psychologists call this brain foible "restraint bias", and it's especially pernicious because it tends to hit us when we feel like we're on top of our game. Notice how many successful diets turn into complete catastrophes, with more weight gained than lost.
What to do: When you're doing well, enjoy the success, but always beware the backslide.
Producing more automatic thoughts than you can possibly manage
All of our brains are perpetually busy producing what some cognitive scientists have dubbed "automatic thoughts". And since every thought is a physical event — an electrical signal coursing through your brain — they have physical consequences; namely, that you are momentarily captivated by whatever the thought is about, no matter how trivial. It takes discipline to block out this chorus of chaos and focus on what matters.
What to do: Remind yourself that automatic thoughts are just that: automatic. You can't control them, but you can control what to focus on.
Pulling you into rumination about your worst fears
Rumination, or mind-wandering, isn't necessarily bad, but our brains have a habit of pulling us into these waters and then stocking them with sharks. Notice that it doesn't take long to find yourself in internal panic mode about a job situation, or financial situation, or relationship pitfall.
What to do: When you find yourself ruminating on the negative, ask yourself if you're doing so to formulate a constructive solution. If the answer is no, then shift focus and get out of there.
Directing you toward distractions to take the pressure off
We're all under pressure about a multitude of things, and sometimes we need a good diversion to keep the situation from getting overheated. But our brains, if we let them, would send us chasing after one after another distractions to keep the pressure alarms from ever going off. That's what our threat-sensitive brains have, in part, evolved to do — avoid threats. And what better way than to find entirely non-threatening distractions?
What to do: Don't fear distractions, because sometimes we need them, but if you find yourself chronically distracted, check yourself before you get lost in neverland.
Making you think you're a mind-reader and a fortune-teller
Our brains are prone to several thinking errors, and two of them do a lot of damage to relationships. First we think we can somehow know what someone else is thinking, even if we have little or no basis for thinking we can. And second, we think we can safely presume what someone is going to do next. In truth, we can do neither, at least with any degree of consistency.
What to do: When you find yourself mind-reading and fortune-telling, ask yourself what evidence you're relying on. If it's thin, and it probably is, cease and desist. More likely than not, you'll do more harm than good if you continue.
Sending mixed messages about which rewards to pursue
Our brains are reward-seeking organs, and targeting rewards (tangible and intangible) is part of their stock and trade. The problem is, the brain isn't equipped with an especially keen sense of selectivity about which reward is best to pursue at any given time, and this results in mental conflict about how to direct our energy.
What to do: Be aware that your brain is tuned to seek rewards, but you have to impose a degree of control on the what, why and when of any pursuit. In other words, turn off autopilot and grab the controls.
Looking for patterns, here, there and everywhere
Our brains are exceptionally good at finding patterns, and it's a good thing they are because sometimes tracking a pattern (like figuring out the telltale signs of a man-eating cat in the area) is indispensable to survival. The problem is that our brains keep the pattern detection engine on all the time, which makes us susceptible to turning meaningless patterns (like coincidences) into monumental events.
What to do: Simply be aware that your brain is always looking for patterns, and develop the discipline to separate a meaningful pattern from a meaningless one.
Pushing you into extending trust whether or not it's reciprocated
Our brains evolved to connect with other brains — we are, after all, a socially interdependent species. Unfortunately, the brain's penchant for extending trust to others isn't always a wise move, because a segment of the human population won't extend it back, though they will make you think they assuredly will. Our brains really want us to believe them, and that can turn out badly.
What to do: Remember to trust but verify — not everyone is who they say they are, and sometimes you have to override your brain's trust thrust to keep yourself from getting burned.
Making things seem urgent that really aren't
"This has to get done immediately or sooner!!!" Really? If you notice, nearly every time someone at work, especially your boss, brings you something new to do, it inherently seems urgent. But is it really? Most responsibilities are not urgent, although they may be important. Separating urgency from importance isn't something our brains do well on their own.
What to do: Simply ask yourself the question — is this truly urgent? Just ask, and you'll probably find more times than not that it isn't. But if you fall into automatic response mode, you'll find yourself acting like it's urgent anyway and probably waste a lot of time and energy without needing to.
Tripping your guilt wire every time something goes wrong
Things go wrong, that's just the way it is, but for some reason our brains want to make someone culpable for everything that goes awry. A lot of time, that's you — or so it would seem if you listen to your brain. This particular brain foible is all about assigning "agency" — finding a cause for every effect. And if you're involved in whatever went wrong, your brain is liable to slap the agent label on your forehead.
What to do: Remind yourself, sometimes things happen without an evident cause (or causer), and unless you truly are to blame, give yourself a break.
10 Ways Your Brain is Smacking You Around [Psychology Today]
David DiSalvo is a science writer and public education specialist who writes about the intersection of science, technology and culture. His work has appeared in Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Mental Floss, Salon, Esquire and other publications, and he is the writer behind the widely read blogs Neuropsyched, Neuronarrative, and The Daily Brain. His first non-fiction book, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, has been translated into 10 languages and is available worldwide. His second nonfiction book, The Brain in Your Kitchen, is due out in December 2012.