What luxury would you enjoy most if you were the elected leader of your country? Personal chef? Gadgetry? The big house?
Jose Mujica is the President of Uruguay and is making headlines as “the world’s poorest president.” He lives on his farm rather than the presidential palace. He drives a VW Beetle rather than taking a limo. And he passes on the caviar and kobe beef, instead electing for a vegetarian diet.
In his own words, “If you don’t have many possessions then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself.”
We have great freedom to pursue, value, and enjoy what we like. And our brains are remarkably trainable. Spend your free time internet shopping for new toys, clothes, music, etc., and your brain will constantly remind you that those things are important.
Spend your free time taking walks, playing with your kids or pets, cooking, playing music, and your brain will constantly remind you that those things are important.
You can create your life. What would you like to create more/less of?
This is my second of (1, 2) 3 posts on The Hidden Brain, by Shankar Vedantam. Fascinating, fascinating book.
How much stronger is your brain than everyone else’s? After World War 2 people couldn’t understand how Germans could have performed the atrocities of the Holocaust. Most felt certain that they would never have blindly followed orders in the same way. Then in the 1960’s Stanley Milgram’s experiments shattered that notion, showing that in fact, our brains are remarkably susceptible to authority.
Vedantam raises a shocking modern day corollary question: How easily could any of us become a suicide bomber?
He describes various suicide bombers throughout history – ones that did and did not have any religious fundamentalist beliefs. He points to the fact that creating suicide bombers requires neither religion nor poverty. Mental illness, gullibility, and weak-mindedness are likewise unnecessary. All it requires is a tunnel.
The tunnel is a life experience in which the people and messages one is exposed to become narrower and narrower until eventually the only path that seems to make any sense in the world is the one heading straight toward the end of the tunnel. The only messages about the “enemy” are about their evil intentions to hurt you. The only messages about success are that the “stars” of the society are the ones who were suicide bombers before you. The only people you ever gain exposure to are the ones who share and promote these same beliefs.
Before long, it feels like you’d have to be crazy not to want to take the suicide bombing path.
But perhaps that still feels too extreme for you. If so, ask yourself about your own tunnel. It is presidential politics season in the US. Does one side feel like the enemy to you? Do people who attack the other side feel like stars? Do you find yourself more and more speaking (at least about politics) only with those who share your views (and watching/listening to media of the same type)?
We all have tunnels. Some less extreme than others. What Vedantam shows is how easily our Hidden Brains can buy into the tunnel and point us to the light at the very end.
Feedback has a bad name and wrongly so. In fact, it is an incredible gift to be given.
When someone says, “Can I give you some feedback?” they are also saying,
- I want to help you.
- I’m afraid to say this, but I’m going to offer it anyway.
- I’m hurt and you can help me feel better.
- I care enough about you (or us) to risk my own discomfort.
But we treat feedback like a menace. We get angry and defensive. From the moment someone asks us that question we get tense and put up our guard and ready our fighting words – while simultaneously saying through gritted teeth, “Of course. I’m always open to feedback.”
Instead, we can short circuit the defensive routine our brains send us into. Say, “Of course. But before you do, can I take a minute to thank you for giving me this gift? It isn’t easy to offer feedback. I really appreciate you taking this risk.”
Lay it on thick. The more you express this appreciation, the more you will calm down your brain.
When the feedback starts if you feel yourself wanting to speak up to defend yourself, try this instead: “Can I interrupt you here to thank you again? This is getting difficult for me to hear which means it must be getting tough for you to say too. You must care a lot about me and about this issue to do something this tough. Thank you so much.”
Once again, lay it on thick. The appreciation you express will bring your brain around and stop you from having lied when you said, “Of course. I’m always open to feedback.”
you can give someone. But as with most gifts, your thoughtfulness matters.
Feedback has a bad name because we usually give it to satisfy our own desires, not out of generosity for what the other person needs
Mindsight, by Daniel Siegel, was my second reading choice from my 2012 reading list. This is the second of three posts on the book.
When I was in college I got obsessed with playing Tetris for a time. And I got good. So good that I could play at the highest speed for as long as I wanted. I mastered the game. Essentially I trained my brain to be so knowing and aware that the game, even at its highest speed felt slow to me.
This is the point of meditation – to train your mind to be so knowing and aware that even under stressful conditions, your brain reactions seem slow, understandable, and manageable to you.
Siegel calls this the window of tolerance. I like the idea of a window of intentionality. It is the window in which you are able to sense an adrenaline surge yet still remain calm. You can recognize a strong desire but not act on it. You can see the automatic response your brain is pushing, but choose to act otherwise.
Meditation is your training ground to widen your window of intentionality.
Next book I’m reading if you want to read along: The Emotional Life of Your Brain, by Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley.
Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, was my first reading choice from my 2012 reading list. This is the first of three posts on the book.
First, it’s a fabulous book that everyone should read. Though it is slightly frustrating that the most exciting stuff comes toward the end. Possibly the biggest idea is that our brains react in the same way when our survival is threatened (think saber tooth tiger) as they do when we receive threats to our status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness (i.e., connectedness to others), and fairness.
Rock offers this in the acronym SCARF. And this point alone could be life changing. When survival is threatened the thinking centers in our brains shut down. We flood with adrenaline and cortisol. Stress shoots up, and our bodies prepare for fight or flight. So threaten any of the SCARF factors and you immediately cut off someone else’s ability to think clearly.
On the other hand, you want to have a tough conversation with someone? You can use this positively. Bolster their SCARF. Give them a bump to their status with a compliment. Share something personal to increase relatedness. Ask questions to give them a sense of control. Their brains will flood with dopamine and serotonin, calming them and helping them engage the tough topic.
Next book I’m reading if you want to read along: Mindsight, by Daniel Siegel.
It’s an equation. It’s clear and simple. When your brain sees it, it spits out an answer.
But what happens when problems are more complicated than 2+2? Unfortunately, the brain still strives to spit out a quick evaluation. The brain is trained this way.
But most of life is more like a blue squiggle than 2+2. How many bends are in the squiggle? What shade of blue? How big is it? Why a squiggle and not a geometric shape?
Life is a blue squiggle. Beware your brain making it into 2+2.
Most people, in most situations, aren’t thinking too deeply about what they are doing.
That may not sound worthy of a news flash to you. But stop and think about it.
We act out of habit and routine and what’s comfortable and normal. This doesn’t mean we don’t try to do what’s right. But most of the time our brains make the decisions about what to do, about what is right to be done, by simply channeling us toward the behaviors we use most commonly.
So we constantly revert to our natural state of being. No problem.
Unless the situation is unnatural. When something unusual occurs our normal behaviors might not suffice. Other people’s normal behavior might hurt or anger us when normally it wouldn’t.
In times of stress it is especially important to pay attention. Notice where your natural state pulls you. And sometime, act unnatural.