Quick! Tell me what is 132321434*21214124/4132421+213232-24546?
Never mind. What did you just do there? You started thinking. How were you able to do that? With the help of your brain. This is what I am going to talk about today. The human brain and its psychology. You may ask me why I would pick such a topic? If we took all the phones in the world and all the wires, the number of connections and the trillions of messages per day would NOT equal the complexity or activity of a single human brain. Our brains are too complicated to be understood by our own brains. In fact the brain is the only thing ever to name itself. Such complexity and sophistication merits discussion. This organ that looks like a cauliflower is the king of the human body and the other parts are its subjects. The brain as you know like our Mother Earth contains two hemispheres namely Left and Right hemispheres. However the notion of dominant left brain thinkers and right brain thinkers is a total myth as both sides are required to work in unison for proper functioning. Ever wondered why girls have better handwriting and superior language skills than boys? And boys excel at Mathematics and spatial skills like reading a map or navigation? The answer lies right here in your head. Men and women use different parts of their brains to process information. Women have strong left-right connectivity between the hemispheres and Men have strong front-back connectivity within hemispheres. Men are stronger in areas such as perception and action and Women are stronger in areas such as creativity and intuition, ever heard of a woman’s instinct? Men also tend to have a larger brain than women but quantity is not necessarily equal to quality or else we can conclude that Sperm whales and Elephants are smarter than us. In fact Einstein’s brain weighed 200 grams lesser than the average male yet he turned out to be one of the most celebrated geniuses of history.
As I am speaking hopefully every one of you would be taking in what I am saying and thinking about it. How are you able to think? The brain cells called neurons inside your head communicate by sending electrical impulses to communicate with each other setting up neural pathways creating patterns of thoughts. Imagine that you are taking a walk through a forest. The first time you go through the forest, there will be shrubs and tree branches obstructing your path making you to fight your way through. However, when you walk through a second time there won’t be as much hindrance as before because you had already created a path. Now, every time you walk through, you make the pathway larger and so there is less and less resistance to your walk. It’s the same with your brain. Every time you think a thought, the resistance is reduced therefore increasing the likelihood of you having that thought again. This is how habits are formed. And it is why it is vitally important that you monitor your thinking. If you think negatively, you will build a strong connection of negative thoughts so you will be more likely to keep repeating those negative thoughts. Try to ensure that you are creating positive thoughts and good habits. It also explains why learning something new or breaking a habit can be difficult at first. The key is to stick at it and it will become easier. However we are not as smart and invulnerable as we’d like to believe. Our mind and emotions can be easily manipulated. Optical illusions and Priming are such examples of manipulations. I am sure we all know what an optical illusion is but what is priming? Priming is an implicit memory effect in which the exposure to a stimulus influences the response to a later stimulus. Let us take an example for better understanding.
Sibil. I want you to be a volunteer and do exactly as I say without any hesitation. Say the word “silk” 10 times very fast without any pauses. Now, what do cows drink? *She says “Milk.”* No, they drink water.
I had exposed you to a stimuli in the form of the word “silk” which in turn affected your later response to the question “what do cows drink?”. This is priming. Another example would be to imagine that I ask you to go down a long corridor, enter a room at the far end and do a word puzzle. In the word puzzle I give words like “wrinkled”, “old”, “ancient”, “antique” and so on. I bet that once you finish the test and walk back down the corridor you would be doing it a whole lot slower than normal. It would be because I had primed your brain into thinking that it is old.
I would like to share a small story with you. An experimenter put 5 monkeys in a cage. At the top of the cage was a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas was a ladder. The monkeys immediately spotted the bananas and one of them began to climb the ladder. As it did, however, the experimenter sprayed it with cold water. Then, he proceeded to spray each of the other monkeys too. The monkey on the ladder scrambled off. Later another monkey began to climb the ladder. Again, the experimenter sprayed the water and the monkey scrambled off. When a third monkey tried to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pulled it off the ladder and beat it. Now one monkey was removed and a new monkey was introduced to the cage. Spotting the bananas, it naively began to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pulled it off and beat it. Here’s where it gets interesting. The experimenter removed a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaced it with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey began to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pulled it off and beat it – including the monkey who had never been sprayed. By the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left and yet, despite none of them ever experiencing the cold, wet, spray, they had all learned never to try and go for the bananas. Sounds familiar? Some of us may have read this as a cartoon on the internet somewhere. Ever heard of superstitions like “Don’t cut your hair or nails after 6 p.m.” or “Don’t play snakes and ladders in the night” yet have no logical reasons? This anecdote can explain how these superstitions are propagated through generations. This concept has a term called as filliopietism. This is another instance of how the brain is so vulnerable and also this is one of the key concepts of social psychology.
We can trick our brain in self-perception by making it fail to recognize our own limbs. Let us take the case of the rubber hand experiment. Put one of your arms behind a box on the table, so you can’t see it. Put the rubber arm on the table so that it looks like your arm. Look at this hand .Now get your friend to stroke both your real hand, and the fake hand. They must stroke both identically, with the same timing and at the same part of your hand. Ask your friend after a minute or so of starting the experiment to hit the rubber hand very hard without any warning– what do you do? You would feel a sudden surge of pain coursing through you as your brain would believe that the rubber hand is your hand. Amazing isn’t it? Most of the responses are based on perception by your senses. Another bizarre fact is that imagine you have hurt your finger. If you see your finger through inverted binoculars then the pain and swelling would be significantly diminished because of the smaller image that you see. Just like how you would not realize that you have cut yourself on a blade until you see the cut and then only the pain starts. So the next time you wound yourself just look away if you don’t want to get the full effect of the pain.
Human memory constantly adapts and morphs itself to fit the world. Call it a constantly evolving organism. There is too much information and processes going on around us that our “sensors” aren’t built to notice absolutely everything in our environment. We take in information through all our senses but there are gaps. So when we remember an event, what our memory ultimately does is fills in those gaps by thinking about what we know about the world.
A simple test
Say the following words to a friend: bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn and drowsy
Later, ask your friend to recall the words they heard
A study found that participants recall the word sleep with about the same probability that they remember other words from the list.
This is called as the false memory syndrome and it is a pretty normal condition which everyone faces especially in relation to their childhood memories. Neuroscientists say that many of our daily memories are falsely reconstructed because our view of the world is constantly changing. Another baffling and evidently conclusive phenomenon that can highlight the heights of vulnerability is supernormal stimuli, a stimulus that produces a more vigorous response than the normal stimulus eliciting that particular response. Natural selection had shaped our behaviour and reactions to environment stimuli over millions of years of evolution giving rise to instinct. A scientist named Tinberg found in his experiments that he could create “artificial” stimuli that were stronger than the original instinct, including the following examples:
He made dummy plaster eggs to see which one a bird preferred to sit on, finding that they would select those that were larger and more vivid—a bright one with black dots would be selected over the bird’s own pale eggs.
He found that territorial male stickleback fish would attack a wooden fish model more vigorously than a real male if its underside belly was redder.
He constructed cardboard dummy butterflies with more elaborate patterns that male butterflies would try to mate with in preference to real females.
Tinbergen was able to influence the behaviour of these animals with a new “super” stimulus that they found themselves attracted too, and which they preferred over the real thing. The animals’ behaviours were a hazardous to their livelihood because they simply couldn’t separate the fake from the real. The hypothesis is that rapidly advancing technology may have created a similar situation for humans. While our instincts were evolved for hunting and gathering 10,000 years ago we find ourselves in a different environment today. Evolution has not had the chance of keeping pace with the advent of technology. Our brains are still the same as our ancestors. We have surrounded ourselves in a world of supernormal stimuli.
We can eat more adulterated as in more refined, far sweeter, saltier and fattier foods than our ancestors in the form of junk food. We sit motionless in front of the idiot box mindlessly flickering through channels and willingly distract ourselves in the form of the internet. But the question is how much is enough? Supernormal stimuli work on humans just like they work on animals as we have basic instincts hard wired into us. A reptile brain resides deep within us whose power is greater than we care to admit. The only way to silence this reptile is by using our will power to summon our conscious thoughts and identify the dummies that surround us.
This might spawn doubt about what is the reptile brain?
At the base of the brain is the the hindbrain. Sitting on top of that is the mid-brain. And then capping the whole was the large forebrain, also known as the cortex. The lower structure is common to all vertebrate animals, it is commonly called the reptilian brain. All mammals have this reptilian brain, plus the mid-brain also called as the mammalian brain. We humans have a reptilian brain, plus a mammalian brain, plus the new addition of the so-called primate brain. The primate brain, or cortex, is like a giant computer hard drive. The vast majority of whatever happened to you is stored in your cortex. The memories of what you saw when you were just born would also reside deep down in this hard drive.
Every night the primate brain goes to sleep. It helps in making today’s memories become yesterday’s. Each day the distance of the memory from “now” becomes greater. This mechanism allows us to “put memories in the past”. If people don’t get enough sleep, things get weird pretty fast. Within just a couple of days the hallucinations start, where you can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.
The mid-brain is the location of emotions like joy and grief. Another interesting functionality of the mammalian brain is the need for company. Here is that need for living in herds, in packs, in villages.
Getting to know this reptilian brain is the key to becoming the master of your mind. Firstly, the reptilian brain provides all the automatic functions: breathing, digestion, heart rate, etc. It has a mind of its own. It is very powerful. It cannot be controlled. The second function of this lower brain is survival. It is extremely quick to react. It takes less than a second to go from fully relaxed to fully defensive as the adrenaline surges through your blood stream. And it takes at least 20 minutes to recover. We’ve all experienced this when we wake up from a nightmare. We turn the lights on, look around the room, for danger and it takes some time to eventually calm down.
I am going to now do something very creepy and disturbing. I need a volunteer from the audience….Rukesh? How about you?…. Never mind. I was just kidding. I just wanted to show you all something. When I said that I needed a volunteer to do something creepy no one was willing to come forward. As I looked into your eyes you froze in your place. You breathing almost stopped. This is you reptilian brain in action. It sensed a danger named fear and went into survival mode. And how did it do so? By freezing in the event of a danger to protect you.
Interestingly, the Lizard as we shall call it, reacts if the normal functions of other parts of the brain are threatened. For example if the mid-brain is producing the emotion of loneliness, the Lizard may initiate panic and fighting behaviour to make sure that you are not left alone. You cannot choose to control it. You can cooperate with it but not control it. If you fight with it too hard like when you say “It is safe” when your lizard is in survival mode, it will take over. It holds control of the blood flow to the cortex, and will cut that back or even off. You will pass out, faint, and drop to the floor. And your lizard will be much happier. It got rid of its problem – your thinking. This state is often called a coma. Lizard is happy. Cortex is shut down. 95% of a person’s emotional reaction is to their history and 5% is to the event that triggered it. Cure the 5% and you still leave the 95% untended-to. So it is not the mid-brain or the primate brain that you should master but it is the reptilian brain that needs mastering.
I would like to sign off with a little thought experiment.
Imagine yourself in 50 years. You’re in your early 70s, near the end of your career. You’re sitting on your couch.
You begin to ponder your life. The career successes, how you’ve been able to provide for your family. You’ll think of all the great moments with your family and friends. But then you start to think about all of the things you wished you had done just a little differently, your regrets.
Sitting in 2065, you wish that you had spent more time with your children. That you had told your wife how much you loved them more frequently. That you could have even one more chance to hug your parents and tell them how much you appreciate them before they passed. That you could have smiled more, laughed more, danced more and created more.
Just as you’re thinking this, a genie appears from nowhere and says, “I have been eavesdropping on your regrets. They are valid ones. I can tell you are a good person so I am willing to give you a second chance if you really want one.” You say “Sure” and the genie snaps his fingers.
Poof! All of a sudden you find yourself right where you are sitting today. You are in your shockingly fit and pain-free 20-something body and begin to realize that it has really happened. You really do have the chance to do it over again. To have the same career successes and deep relationships. But, now you can optimize. You can laugh more, dance more and love more. Your parents are here again so it is your chance to love them like you wished you had done the first time. You can be the source of positivity that you wished you had been the first time around.
So make good use of it. Thank you.
References & Citations: