Your Brain is Lying to You

I want to know things, understand them, poke and question them until they make sense. I rarely accept something as-is and instead have to critically examine it from multiple angles and determine what it is and how it functions. My mind puts together a complex web of interconnected ideas and there is so much satisfaction when something new slots into place. I place a lot of value and weight on thinking and what my brain tells me. And the more reading I do on how the brain works, in psychology and neuroscience, the more I’m having to admit that my brain lies to me—all our brains do.

Once upon a time, I was completely convinced that I liked the cold. I had a friend who liked the cold, and I hadn’t had any particularly negative experiences with cold (growing up in Kenya near the equator will help with that) and so I just assumed I disliked heat as much as those who complained about it and that I liked cold. Then I moved to western NY for a while with its abominably long winters and realized that I despise the cold: scraping ice off the car, blue fingernails, gray skies, icy roads, and getting up in the morning. After moving first to a desert in the UAE and then to the tropical island of Penang, I’ve realized I love warmth. But if I could tell that to teenage Jens, he’d think I was crazy. He was convinced he liked the cold and his brain would not let him believe otherwise.

We can convince ourselves of a lot of things. Brains are very malleable and have this amazing capacity to make sense of a very confusing and complex world. I’m so thankful that my brain filters out stuff that I don’t need (sometimes, I wish it would filter out a few more things, like annoyingly loud motorcycles and high-pitched whining sounds). But this filter also means we miss stuff, sometimes crucial information that might alter how we see the world. It’s like when I learn a new word and then suddenly see if several times the following week while being convinced I’d never run across it in my life up to then. I used to think that was a crazy coincidence (or providence) but now I know that word had been around all the time but my brain had just been filtering it out.

How many important details has my brain filtered out? And how many erroneous frameworks has my brain detected, then reinforced, because the brain likes patterns? This sort of confirmation bias—the tendency the brain has to readily adopt information that confirms something we already think and reject things we don’t think—shapes the pathways of our thinking, our choices, and our personality.

The problem is we’re all so convinced that the way our brain has taught us to make sense of the world is right. I know I often think that.

And so learning more about how malleable the brain is has actually been very freeing. It has allowed me to question not only the world around me but my own response to it. I’m learning to not take my own thoughts as a base-line but to distance myself from my instinctive reactions. I really like how my brain works, but I also need to keep learning how to tell when it’s lying to me.

I may like the sunshine more than an overcast sky, but when my brain tells me it’s going to be a terrible day because of this, I can call BS. When a piece of information seems to confirm something I already think, I now know that I need to dig just a little deeper. And when something seems really hard (like trying to sit still and NOT think) I know that I can train my brain to become better at it.

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