“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Nobel Laureate, George Bernard Shaw, penned this farsighted observation lightyears before anyone knew the pace of change would accelerate from 0 – 60 in a nanosecond. Technology has progressed in giant strides – especially in Neuroscience –now we know the brain reshapes itself endlessly, making it possible for us to change everything – including our minds.
David Eagleman, neuroscientist and author of The Brain: The Story of You, makes the intriguing claim that our human brain is the most complex object discovered in the known universe. He says the brain is a relentless shape-shifter and although you may think who we are is fixed and immoveable, it’s not. Every moment of every day our brain is learning, adapting and updating making us a work-in-progress, from cradle to grave.
What is reality?
According to Eagleman ‘reality’ only exists in our heads. In the outside world there is no colour, no sound and no smell. It’s our brain – locked in silence and darkness – that conjures up the rich and beautiful world we take for granted. What we see, hear, smell and feel is a technicolour multi-sensory illusion intended to help us navigate our way through the environment.
These illusions are constructed by the brain’s ability to recognise patterns and produce the convincing rendition we call ‘reality’. Convincing it may be, but faithful it’s not; we perceive just enough to navigate our way but still fervently defend the view that our perception is reality – sometimes even risking losing a lot to win pointless ‘my perception vs yours’ arguments.
What makes me?
A developing brain is shaped by its environment and something malleable that can hold its shape is called ‘plastic’. ‘Plasticity’ means the brain is constantly reconfiguring and updating its own circuitry and software. ‘Liveware’ is the term Eagleman uses to describe the processes shaping the brain which happens nonstop from hatch-to-despatch.
Each brain also configures its liveware slightly differently making you unique; no one like you has ever existed before or will ever exist again. It also makes us adaptable. Humans survive and thrive in a wide variety of local circumstances from the scorching desert in the African Kalahari to the frozen tundra of the Arctic Circle.
What then of personality? The thread of who we think we are is purely the narrative our brain serves up. This we normally call ‘memory’ which under scrutiny has been found to be fallible and unreliable.
Seems the notion of a core identity may well be more mythology than fact and brushing off our peculiarities with the quip – ‘Well that’s just who I am’ – no longer holds water.
Nor is our personality inherited. Genes give a very general direction for the blueprint guiding the 86 billion-or-so brain cells that shape who we are but life experience programmes the rest. So, who we are boils down to nothing more than what our neurons are up to.
Who is in Control?
Surprisingly, very little of what we experience registers consciously. This may be a bitter pill to swallow for some, but it’s essential for our wellbeing. When doing something simple – like reading this mail – imagine how difficult life would be if we had to consciously control every muscle involved in moving the mouse and our eyeballs around.
We are creatures of habit purely because it makes life easier. All habits – good, bad or indifferent – are learnt and quickly go underground where they operate unconsciously. It’s why bad habits seem so challenging to change.
Brain architecture involved in learning from experience is consistent across species. It’s easy to accept Fido-the-hound will perform tricks when bribed with bits of bacon but we underestimate the extent to which all brains – including our own – respond to reward. Although we may feel in control, truth is, the only time we consciously take the wheel is when startled by surprises.
How do I decide?
Decision making lies at the core of who we are and how we perceive the world. We may think we our decisions are rational, but Eagleman shows us why emotion is at the heart of decision-making. He terms signals sent from the body to the brain “emotional summaries” and these messages guide us to rewards. Roughly translated in behavioural terms this means we are most likely to follow what makes us happy. Of course following rewards can lead us into temptation but – overall – our emotional system is the key driver in making better decisions – certainly more humane ones.
Why do I need you?
With over seven billion brains trafficking around the planet, half of us is other people. Each of our brains operates in such a rich web of interaction with one another that we can plausibly look at the accomplishments of our species as the deeds of a single, shifting mega-organism.
In groups, humans have accomplished great things but there’s a darker side too. By definition ‘in-groups’ create ‘out-groups’ and the notion of ‘us vs them’ can interfere with our natural tendency for empathy. It can also shut down normal moral rules leading to unconscionable acts such as xenophobia, warfare and genocide.
Who will we be?
The reality of our brilliant brain is it doesn’t care where it gets data from, it will take input from anywhere and figure out what to make of it. Eagleman suggests our sensory portals are like plug-and-play devices conjuring up the possibility of streaming real-time data into our body. With developments in brain-machine-interface (BMI) it could soon be possible to upload the content of our brains, escape our biological origins and immortalise human consciousness. Perhaps the idea of having our head in the clouds is no longer just a fanciful daydream.
For those who prefer not to read books, this material has been produced into a 6-part television series: The Brain with David Eagleman. The 6 parts can be found under the same paragraph headings used in this article.
To learn more about Personal Intelligence (EQ + IQ), invite Steph to speak at your next conference or contract with her for a comprehensive training session that prepares people psychologically to welcome change and – in the process – makes everyone smarter and more functional.
<><>www.eqsa.co.za / 27 11 486-1211