Tuesday, March 4, 2008

You're not perfect, and neither is your brain

First, let me apologize for my recent absence. I have been having problems with my internet connection, and realizing just how lost and disconnected I feel without it.

The plus side of my internet-less-ness is that I have been able to read books at an even faster pace than usual. (By the way, I found a new favorite fictional writer, Haruki Murakami). Two books that I have recently read have been stuck on my mind: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson; and Predictable Irrationality, by Dan Ariely.

The basic premises of these books, respectively, are that our brains instinctively justify bad decisions, foolish beliefs and hurtful actions and that we are not nearly as rational as we like to think we are.

The overriding thought that has stuck with me is that our brains are not the flawless, reliable machines that we often view them as. Whether it’s being suckered into paying $3.00 for a cup of coffee after years of paying 50 cents (an example in Predictable Irrationality) or falsely convincing yourself that you are a holocaust survivor (an example in Mistakes Were Made), our brains deceive us pretty frequently.

The more I understand how my brain is flawed, the more I realize the importance of this realization. Our brains evolved according to what was advantageous in our environment. But with the rapid change in environment brought on in the past few thousand years, a lot of our brains mechanisms are simply outdated.

The best example I can think of is our love for sugar and calories. In our hunter/gatherer days, the rare source of sugar provided a much-needed boost of energy and we learned to pack in as many calories as we could when they were available because we never knew when our next meal would be. In today’s first world countries, food is overly abundant and we rarely have to worry about where our next meal will come from. Yet our love for sugar and calories persists, and as a result we’re fat as hell and dying of heart diseases, diabetes and an endless list of other health complications due to our inability to curb this evolutionary addiction.

Now this is just my personal experience and it may not apply to everyone, but I have found that the best way to resist this temptation is to understand why I am so drawn to Snickers bars and fried chicken. By understanding that my desire for these things is irrational, and understanding why that irrational desire exists, I am much less likely to succumb to those desires. Of course, every once in a while I still break down and devour an entire pizza by myself, but I understand that I am succumbing to an outdated addiction and make sure that it is only occasional.

But this post is not exclusively about dieting tips. This mentality can be applied to just about every aspect of our lives. Don’t be so quick to dismiss someone’s story of events just because you remember it differently; our personal memories care very little for truth. Question whether that PlayStation3 is really worth $400 to you, or if that same money could be used for something that would make you happier (or someone else happier!); we have no internal gauge of value except in relation to other things. Question your actions from a third-person view, instead of your biased opinion; our brains will do anything they can to convince us that everything we do is right.

One of the most universal everyday goals of people is to make good decisions. We are constantly making decisions, and the more good decisions we make, the better we end up. I am absolutely convinced that one of the most vital tools to making good decisions is realizing that our brains are not perfect and taking its flaws into consideration in every important decision we make.


The Exterminator said...

It's very brave of you, but perhaps a little arrogantly foolhardy, to say (as you did in your very first post): I challenge you to find a grammatical or spelling error on my blog.

Here's something you've written in this post:

(By the way, I found a new favorite fictional writer, Haruki Murakami).

Two errors there. First of all, the period belongs within the parentheses. But even worse -- is Haruki Murakami a fictional writer or a fiction writer? I suspect you meant the latter, since this person appears to exist in real life.

You're doing a great job here at VSM (which is why you won a Stermy in February). But do take your own advice from this excellent essay, and allow yourself to be human, rather than a very special robot. As a fellow spelling-and-grammar Nazi, I urge you to realize that even we will make the occasional mistake in mechanics.

Nathan said...

Damn! You're right. That statement was meant as an actual challenge, not a claim of perfection. But I guess it does come off as blatant arrogance. Chalk that up as another mistake for me.