The human brain is a marvelous piece of natural technology. It has many features but there is one that is truly unique and distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It can imagine things. The rest of the animals living on this planet need to see, hear, touch, and experience the world around to be able to react to it. We, the human beings can do all of that in our minds. Over the last couple of millions of years mother nature provided us with a part of brain called frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex. That is the part of the brain responsible for imagining and to be really effective it uses the same areas of brain we use when we see or hear things in real-time. That allows us achieve so much more than other animals but it also makes a powerful tool for feeding us misinformation and makes us puppets to our own cheating minds. In this post I will present couple of ideas described by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness illustrated by everyday examples we all experience.
Our cheating memory
Our brain has a limited capacity to store information so it created a neat way how to do it. It stores just the highlights, just the key points from what we experience and not every single detail. When we want to retrieve that memory it gets the key points and extrapolates the rest. As you would expect it extrapolates the rest based on what we experience today and not what happened in the past. And not just on what we experience today but also on how we feel at that particular moment. This means that we essentially remember things the way we want them remember today.
For example do you remember how you felt when you tasted some food for the first time? I love to eat sauerkraut. And I also know that when I was young my mother always had to push me to eat it as I didn’t like it. Regardless how much I try to remember how it tasted back then and why I didn’t like it… I just cannot. Does the phrase “I don’t understand how I could ever live without this” ring a bell? At the other hand a food I really despise is sweet rice. Last time I ate it was when I was a child and I remember that I didn’t like it. I have no idea why. I didn’t taste it since then. My brain stored just the most basic information “sweet rice = no good” and no details around.
Our cheating imagination
The same as with the past memory applies to imagining our future. We focus only on the big picture and we don’t think about details. That is why we often overpromise on what we can deliver. We will just think about the highlights and will not think about all the small details around it.
A typical example for always busy people is to promise someone that we will have a dinner or beer with them on Friday next week. In our mind we see this picture: I just finished work at 5pm and together with friends head for dinner, get our favorite food, enjoy the conversation, and have a good time. Then Friday comes. We realize that the last meeting at work ends 5pm sharp and we need some more time to finish other tasks, it is raining outside and the weather is nasty, we are not particularly hungry, a customer just yelled at us and we are not in mood for a laugh and tomorrow morning we need to get up early to take our kids for a trip. We forgot about all these small details when imagining the future a week ago and now they are very real and visible so we pick up a phone and call our friends that we cannot make it. These little things were planned long time ago, our brain just didn’t take them into account when imagining the future. And the worst part? Our brain is cheating even now, because if we ignored him and went for the meal with friends we would have a great time…
Our brain protecting our feelings
When something bad happens to us our brain finds ways how to minimize the bad feelings about it (it finds excuses). This seems like really useful feature but it doesn’t explain why we still feel bad about some things. The trick lies in another aspect of how the brain works. It is more sensitive to changes than to total magnitude of an event. When the change is big enough, or the situation bad enough it triggers the internal psychological immune system. The brain then starts coming up with positive explanations to limit the negative impact on us and makes us feel a bit better about it. When the change is small, or just minor annoyance this internal system is not triggered. As a result we sometimes over-react, feel unreasonably upset with small things while coping much better with major disasters.
Just think about situation when some major project didn’t go as you planned, or you really screwed up. What has most likely happened was you coming up with explanations like “It wasn’t really my fault as I didn’t have all the information and no one supported me.” “I wasn’t really too interested in the project anyway, and we are better off without it.” And then compare it with situations when you get really angry with waiting too long in a line at the counter in super market or using bad language about the car ahead of you that took too long to get moving at the lights so you missed the green and need to wait two more minutes.
Since we are talking about things that irritate us let me make one more statement. We tend to remember unique situations more than common ones. And because of that our brain makes us think that they happen more often than they really do. So next time you get to the coffee machine in the office and it is out of coffee beans so you need to refill it and you say to yourself “Not again. Why does it always happen to me?” just consider the number of times it actually didn’t happen to you. You feel that it happens every day, but if you would start a diary and always make a note you would discover that it is just your brain lying to you and in fact it doesn’t happen that often as your mind makes you believe.
Our brain trying hard to make us happy
Our brain constantly tries to make us happy and altering the past in a way to protect us. When we make a decision our brain will find ways to justify that decision as the best one. As Daniel Gilbert notes “It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience.” This is the reason why we feel anxiety when having to make a decision but feel relieved once the decision is done. In fact in majority of situations we feel really good about the decision made and we like the results and the more time goes on the more sure we are it was the best decision of our life.
Twitter type summary: “Human brain has an incredible power of imagination. And it uses that power to feed us misinformation and faulty facts.”
Do you have stories to share where your brain has failed you? Have it ever happened to you that you realized you remember things differently than they happened?