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Everything in your life first happens in your brain

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Our brains are responsible for everything that happens to us from the time we are born till we die. 

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And I do mean everything. Every idea, every experience, every memory, every emotion, every sensation, every decision, every action, every regret.

Take this comment for example, are you thinking with your head or your heart? Or you've got to pursue your dreams with all your heart. Or to love with all your heart.  Or you wrote such a heartfelt message.

All of these comments are "heartfelt" nonsense. Your heart is just a pump. When we refer to thinking with our hearts, or to have heart in our pursuits, to have a heart-to-heart talk, or to send heartfelt messages, we're really referring to the emotional parts of our brain. 

So understanding how our brains tick and why it comes to the conclusions it does is in essence understanding how we tick and why we behave the way we do. This website contains several sections with over a hundred pages examining how our behaviours are shaped in our brains. 

But let's start with a simple summary of what our brains really do. It does 5 major things:

  1. Sensation - sensing the physical environment. We have receptors like our eyes, our ears, our nose, our skin that takes in physical information. You might say what has this got to do with our brains? Light falls into our eyes, and we see something. Not quite. For example, the signals from our eyes are processed in our brains - without this processing, we can't make sense of this information. And we know this because if the part of our brains that processes visual information is damaged even though our eyes are fine, we can't see. This brings us neatly into point 2. 
     

  2. Perception. Your brain perceives the information coming in from your senses. But crucially, there 2 major factors affecting your perception.

    The first is our brain's natural filter. for example, what is the feeling of your shirt (or any other piece of clothing) on your skin right now? You didn't notice this sensation even though it was there. Here's another example. We are all familiar with the tragedy of 9/11, with the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. You must have seen photos and videos of the incident. Now tell me, were there clouds in the sky that day? You're not sure, even though you've seen all those pictures and videos. 

    A second factor is your past experience. Two people might be saying the same thing. But you ignore the one you have a bad impression of while paying attention to the other. The soundwaves they emit which are picked up by your ears are an undisputable physical reality. But your perception is subjective. Reality is like the entire stage while your perception is just one spotlight. It is a window through which you look at the entire world. If we don't pay attention, we don't notice it. But what we choose to pay attention to is amazingly quite often subconscious, not of our own choosing. 
    (In our chapter on our brain prefers efficiency over accuracy, we explore more about our brain's filters and lenses. Read more here)

     

  3. Emotions. This is all the love and passion and heartfelt speeches we commonly think of. But also, fear, anger, disgust, empathy, aggression, anxiety - the whole list. Emotions are our brains' innate reactions to our perceptions. And they have 3 major characteristics:

    • They are automatic - When we receive news that someone we love has unfortunately passed on, we feel sad. Or when you get a kiss from someone you love, you feel happy. You don't need to tell your brain, hey, now's a good time to feel sad or happy or angry. 

    • They act as amplifiers  - When we feel the emotion, we also feel a subsequent urge to take some form of action. We are in a heightened state. We want to do something that matches our emotions, whether it is lashing in anger, or escaping to be alone. It amplifies the urge within us to do something. Just imagine if you didn't feel any emotions. You succeed in something difficult, you had your first child, you failed dramatically in front of many people. And your emotions, your amplifier tells you, hey this is something really important. 

    • Your emotions are values-free - Critically related to the point above, while your emotions amplify your attention and urge to do something, it doesn't tell you what the right thing to do is. When you get angry, well what are you angry for or who are you angry at? Is it really the other person who had said something? Or is it that you are really angry at yourself, because that person is right? When you feel frustrated because you can't seem to make any progress at work, you might fling across the room or grab some alcohol. But what next? Your emotions don't tell you what things mean or what you so should do. As we have covered above, they are automatic reactions that amplify the signal that something is important. But your emotions don't help you figure out what is happening, why you feel the way you do, and what to do next. That depends on our next feature.
       

  4. Thoughts, ideas decisions. Our brains mull over what we have perceived or feel, and figures out what's the meaning behind it. But how we think about something is greatly influenced by many factors, examples include:

    • We might be so emotional that we devise thoughts to justify, and not examine our emotions. The emotional and rational parts of our brains are very well connected, and mutually influence each other. You might have experience of being very emotional and deciding to take an action which you considered to be rational at that time. But looking back now, when the emotions have subsided, we wonder how  

    • How we organise information - politicians with opposing political affiliations, an artist vs a scientist, a risk-taker vs a conservative - they might be presented with the same information, but have very different interpretations

    • Our past experience - we create stories to explain what has happened in our lives. But sometimes, we get these stories wrong. Read more in our chapter on stories here.

    • The context we are in

    • Our innate biases - an incredibly long list. This site will explore some of these, including how we overestimate our own labour, how we are more judgmental when tired, how holding a warm drink can make us think people have warmer personalities, how we tend to make the least risky choice when the decision is difficult.
       

  5. Behaviours and actions. Every action taken starts with the triggering of a neuron in our brain. There are 2 types of actions: The first is automatic and a sort of reflex, like your respiration right now, it just happens, you don't need to give any instructions whatsoever. The second is when deliberate choose to do something, for example, changing the speed and length of your breath right now. It might be easy to think that our actions and our behaviour naturally follow our thoughts, but they don't. There are many examples which you probably have experienced in your life. People refuse to wear a seatbelt, do not take their medication on time, resist making changes to their own lives, succumb to smoking even when they're trying to quit... )and the list goes on) even if in their minds they agree that their actions are wrong. 
     

All of our life experiences revolve around these 5 things.

 

In a way, it does all seem so terribly improbable.  Your brain is locked up in a case and it never interacts with objective reality. It has never seen or heard or felt anything. It only weighs about 3 pounds. Yet it creates our own version of reality, the reality of our lives.

It does so with the most complex wiring that we know of. 100 billion neurons, each with 10,000 connections. Each connection might have different neurotransmitters. Groups of neurons congregate to form specific brain regions. We produce hormones that increase the rate of communication between the brain and other parts of our body. Every neuron contains all 3 billion base pairs of our DNA, passed down from generation after generation. And we carry the wisdom of thousands of years of evolution, and the norms of the society and culture we live in. 

All of these contribute to a brain that is capable of reliving the past and projecting the future, of the greatest joy and deepest sorrow, the boldest dreams and the most internal resistance, to take the bravest actions or to be the most selfish person.

Understanding our brain allows us to understand how we can change how it works for us, to keep us going when times are hard, to make decisions in better states of mind, to convince others and ourselves that we might be wrong, how to build and change our habits, and how to find what is meaningful to us and to dedicate more of our limited time and energy to these. 

Have fun exploring the rest of the pages!


 

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