Three Longs & Three Shorts

How to harness brain science for a better life, explained by a neuroscientist

Lisa Feldman Barrett is a giant in the field of psychology. “Her pioneering research in neuroscience has landed her among the top 1% of most cited scientists in the world, and a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship in neuroscience.” Ms Feldman Barrett has written a new book – “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain” – about how brain science can help us live “a more productive and prosperous life.” In this interview with CNN she reveals some of the insights given in the book.
Feldman Barrett says that much of the information our brain gives is actually NOT true: “Think about the last time you were drinking a glass of water. Within a couple of seconds you feel less thirsty. And that’s actually a remarkable thing, because the water that you drink doesn’t reach your bloodstream for about 20 minutes. How is that water quenching your thirst so quickly? And the answer is because your brain has learned from past experience that drinking water makes you less thirsty, so your brain is making a prediction.”
Much of what the brain does is based on these sorts of heuristics and habits that the brain has acquired over your lifetime. This leads to two sorts of insights. Firstly, it is not clear to what extent our brains exercise free will (as opposed to giving conditioned responses underpinned by heuristics & habits)! Secondly, you can control your brain by conditioning your heuristics and habits: “Free will is a topic that philosophers have been debating forever. A little book isn’t gonna settle it, but from understanding how the brain predicts, we can shed some light on the question of free will. It’s true that your brain predicts your actions and launches your actions before you’re aware of them. Think about a baseball player about to launch into a swing well before he consciously needed to. If he waited until later, he wouldn’t have enough time to swing, and he’d always miss the ball. Prediction is crucial. We don’t experience our life this way, but this is actually what’s happening.
Your brain predicts and launches your actions based on data, namely, based on your past experience.
The baseball player takes into account what he knows about the pitcher and the conditions of his own body to make a really good prediction about where the ball is going to be in a moment from now. That’s where he swings and is prepared to hit.
This example reveals something important: If you curate useful experiences for yourself, you can change your brain in future predictions.
That is a form of free will we rarely discuss. You are always cultivating your past, which helps you control who you will be in the future.”
All of this obviously leads to the domain of how repetitive practice can be used to condition the brain and thus achieve goals that others might think are unattainable: “At first when you practice something it requires a lot of attention — you have to really work at it. But over time, if you practice it becomes automatic and effortless, really. So, if your resolution is to spend more time with your kids or to learn a new musical instrument, you can start today, you don’t have to wait for the New Year.
And you can practice the skill, cultivate the experience as much as you can, giving your brain lots of practice to predict automatically in the future. Again, it’s this idea that you are the architect of your experience. If you seed your brain with new experiences today, this will encourage your brain to predict differently tomorrow.”
Moving away from repetitive practice to the other extreme of human experience – learning new things – Feldman Barrett makes another interesting point: “In every moment your brain is running a sort of budget for your body. But instead of budgeting money, it’s budgeting water, salt, glucose and other resources so that your body has what it needs at the right time to keep you alive and well. This budgeting process also produces your most basic feelings, like feeling pleasant or unpleasant, feeling comfortable or distressed, feeling calm or activated.
o when you encounter political ideas that you dislike, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Your brain is using some extra resources to process them. It’s like a withdrawal from your body budget because things that are unpredictable or dislikable are more expensive metabolically. This withdrawal can feel unpleasant.
The two most expensive things your brain can do is move your body and learn something new. When you exercise, you spend a lot of metabolic resources. You’re making a big expenditure but you think about that as an investment in a healthier brain in the future.
The same thing is true about learning something new. The more that you learn, the more you expose yourself to new things and the more new things you’ve learned, the more flexible and resilient you are in your own life.”