Hidden Brain (as presented at PechaKucha JHB v13)
This talk is about the many ways in which our brains work for us and against us. Over the years, researchers in neuroscience and psychology have tried to decipher the brain and the mind. This is all in the hopes of grasping how the human mind works.
Although this is a worthy cause, it’s also absurd if you think about it. We are probably the only species that tries to use an instrument (i.e. the brain) to try and explain the limitations of the said instrument. Below we will focus on how our brains relate to a) habit formation, b) free will and c) language.
Perception is the ability to see, hear or become aware of something through our senses. The way in which things are regarded. Hence the saying; ‘we don’t see things as they are, but rather as we are’. This poses an interesting question of what then, is reality?
I’m sure you’ll remember the internet sensation of the ‘blue and black’ or was it ‘gold and white’ dress that captured the curiosity of many. As someone who thought the dress was ‘gold and white’ I could not understand what the blue/black camp was all about. The more I tried to perceive from their point of view, the more I failed. At the end I just resorted to wondering if this was all part of some elaborate internet ploy to deceive unsuspecting curious minds.
We’re all familiar with the concept of yin and yang. The concept of duality through which all of life is experienced. This polarity is also evident in our behaviours. Our brains (although powerful) are lazy, so much so that most of what we do is actually based on habit and not decisive action.
New York Times writer Charles Duhigg came up with what he calls the habit loop to try and explain this. When you leave your desk at 3pm to get that slice of cake from the cafeteria, you’re probably not even consciously thinking about this. The cue; (it’s 3pm) instigates a routine (walk to the cafeteria) for a reward (feeling an instant bout of energy or something sweet on your tongue). So if you want to change any habit, focus of changing the routine when that cue hits.
If most of our behaviour is driven by the subconscious, what does this mean for free will? Do we really have the ability to act on our own discretion? Between habit formation and learnt behaviour you really have to wonder whether the concept of free will as we understand it, actually exists.
The theory that our deepest selves lies beneath the surface and that our basil ganglia or lizard brain is really what drives us and evolution, is still very prominent. The idea that most decisions, from what you eat, your vocation to choosing your life partner is really at the mercy of a level of consciousness you do not really understand, let alone have adequate access to.
Logos, better known as language i.e. the communication of any and all things in nature, is believed to be a combination of vibration and matter. Ancient languages such as Hebrew and Sanskrit (when spoken) are believed to create a vibrant frequency that moves matter into sacred geometrical patterns.
These sounds can affect our circulation and nervous systems. This extends to your mind and the atmosphere. This could perhaps explain why storytelling is such a vital part of being human.
The beauty of storytelling can also be perverted when we create single stories of stereotypes. Chimamanda Adichie put it beautifully when she said; ‘the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue….but rather that they are incomplete.’
Stories, when told truthfully and wholeheartedly, are a window to the human soul. They can also be a window through which we perceive the rest of the world….thanks to language.
A consumer research paper in the U.S suggests we can change behaviour by simply changing language. An example is the impact of substituting the words ‘I can’t’ with ‘I don’t'. University students in the U.S. were trained to resist temptation of unhealthy snacks by either using ‘I can’t eat xyz’ or ‘I don’t eat xyz’. Later they were offered a choice between a chocolate bar and a slightly healthier granola bar. Less than 40% of those in the ‘I can’t’ self talk group made the healthier option while more that 67% of those in the ‘I don’t’ group took the healthier option.
Can’t is disempowering, it implies that there are restrictions and someone else is in control. Don’t is empowering, it implies that you are in control.
One differentiating in language, is how it relates to time, i.e. whether you make a distinction between the past, present and future. In Chineses languages for example the time spectrum between yesterday, today and tomorrow is not clearly distinguished (these are ‘futureless’ languages). If you speak a ‘future language’ vs a ‘futureless language’ you are more likely to distance yourself from the future and your behaviour will reflect that.
Nations with futureless languages tend to save more. If you compare 2 otherwise identical families in Nigeria, one speaking Hausa and the second speaking Igbo, the results are staggering. On average, families speaking futureless languages save more, retiring with more than 25% more in savings. These nations are also 20-24% less likely to smoke, 13-17% less likely to be obese and 21% more likely to have used a condom in their last sexual encounter. All this speaks to the impact of clearly distinguishing the future from the present.
It’s also interesting to think about the development and evolution of languages through the age. We add word, remove words, add meaning etc.
Think of portmanteaus such as hungry, which is a state of anger induced by hunger, or adorkable. Or how the word lol is not really used to mean ‘laughing out loud’ anymore.
This American life podcast recently reported a story of a 26 year old student whose brain created a fantastical dream which landed him believing he was a spy and eventually landing him in hospital with bullet wounds. This is just an example of how your brain can betray you as the line between the real and unreal becomes blurred.
Beware of the power of what your feed your brain. It is after all, a house you have to live in, for the rest of your life.