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"Doubt is not an agreeable condition, but certainty is an absurd one." —Voltaire, from a letter to Frederick II of Prussia
Mind Full of Sharks
On October 9, 1997, observers from the Point Reyes Bird Observatory witnessed a killer whale clashing with a great white shark near Farallon Island, twenty-six miles off the coast of San Francisco. The sight made for salacious nature news. Speculation about what would happen if these apex predators met has always piqued curiosity, but until that day no one really knew for sure. Someone on the ship caught the confrontation on video, which later made its way onto the Internet and became an instant draw for millions of eyeballs worldwide.
Turns out, it wasn't much of a fight. The orca had little trouble dispatching her menacing opponent, and then proceeded to dine on its liver, leaving the carcass for seagulls to pick clean. This outcome may have disappointed many who expected a bloody, jaw-to-jaw battle between these titans of the deep, but it tickled the fancy of academics to the point of giddiness.
The reason for their interest had to do with why the two clashed in the first place and exactly how the orca defeated the shark. Ordinarily, apex predators are happy to avoid each other, for the simple reason that fighting a beast in your weight and ferocity class will probably result in injury. Injury means impaired ability to hunt, and that means game over.
Knowing this, scientists were eager to know why two of the most successful predators on the planet would risk confrontation in the open seas. The answer shocked everyone. This was no chance street brawl: The orca was actually hunting the shark.
To understand why, we have to take a step back to examine how killer whales learn their namesake trade. Like humans, orcas have culture. But unlike most human cultures, orca cultures revolve around one thing: hunting behavior. Some orcas hunt herring, others seal, others stingrays, and others—sharks. The observers on the ship had witnessed an orca conducting the business of its shark-hunting culture.
The next discovery was how the orca so handily defeated the shark. In every orca culture, a hunting technique is learned through demonstration and imitation. That's a big part of what makes orcas such efficient predators—they learn the best, tried-and-true hunting techniques from each other. When one orca tries a killing method that works well, others take notice and copy it.
Scientists speculate that at some point, an orca discovered that if it rammed a shark hard enough from the side, the shark would flip over and become motionless, unable to defend itself and inflict injury. In effect, that pioneering orca induced "tonic immobility" in its adversary—a temporary state of paralysis many species of sharks fall into when turned on their backs. The human discovery of tonic immobility in sharks is relatively recent, making the orca's behavior all the more remarkable.
This deadly shark-hunting technique, capable of rendering a great white shark powerless, is the orca equivalent of a human "meme"—a unit of cultural ideas and practices transmitted from one mind to another. Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine, puts a finer point on it by defining a meme simply as "that which is imitated." The biological corollary to a meme is, of course, a gene, a unit of heredity transmitted from an organism to its offspring. Killer whales are, as a matter of heredity, powerful hunters, but we now know that their cultures strongly influence how they use their native abilities. An orca from a herring-hunting culture is not likely to tackle a great white shark, just as an orca from a whale-hunting culture would have no reason to start hunting stingrays.
The key point is that orca cultures pass along memes that benefit their members via learning and perfecting crucial skills necessary for survival. The orca brain is advanced enough to make this meme transfer effective beyond what any other creature in the ocean is capable of achieving. In other words, just about anything might end up on the menu.
The human brain, in contrast, is the undisputed learning master on the planet. Our cultures are infinitely more complex than orca cultures, because the sheer volume and depth of memes we exchange is orders of magnitude greater. The flip side of this reality is that our big brains, advanced as they are, come with an array of complex shortcomings and are also expert at transmitting these shortcomings.
One of the most perilous gene–meme double whammies that humans possess is the notion of certainty. Our natures and our learned biases lead us to believe that we are right whether or not we really are. This is the orca equivalent of learning the wrong way to hunt a great white shark—not a mistake any smart orca would copy. If orca cultures passed along memes that imperiled their members, they wouldn't be long for this world. Humans, on the other hand, pass on problematic memes like the notion of certainty on a daily basis. Rarely does this go well, but rarely does that stop us.
The reason for our stubbornness goes deeper than we think. Neuroscience research is revealing that the state of not being certain is an extremely uncomfortable place for our brains to live: The greater the uncertainty, the worse the discomfort. A 2005 study conducted by psychologist Ming Hsu and his team found that even a small amount of ambiguity triggers increased activity in the amygdalae—two deep brain structures that play a major role in our response to threats. Each amygdala is a cluster of nerve cells that sits under a corresponding temporal lobe on either side of the brain. Information pours into the amygdalae from multiple sources; the amygdalae filter through the information to determine its threat-level significance and mobilizes a response. At the same time, the brain shows less activity in the ventral striatum, a part of the brain involved in our response to rewards (we would expect to see increased activity in the ventral striatum when we are anticipating a pay raise, or vacation, or even a kiss, for instance). As the level of ambiguity increases, amygdalae activity continues to increase, and ventral striatum activity continues to decrease.
What this tells us is that the brain doesn't merely prefer certainty over ambiguity—it craves it. Our need to be right is actually a need to "feel" right. Neurologist Robert Burton coined the term "certainty bias" to describe this feeling and how it skews our thinking.
The truth for us all is that when we feel right about a decision or a belief—whether big or small—our brains are happy. Since our brains like being happy, we like feeling right. In our everyday lives, though, feeling right translates into being right (because if we could admit that we only "feel" right, then we might not really be right, and from our brains' point of view that's just not alright).
Our fierce mammalian cousins in the oceans are not strapped with the existential baggage of craving certainty. Their needs are far more straightforward, and their brains evolved to facilitate learning specific to meeting those needs. As one unfortunate great white found out, orca brains are very good at what they do.
Our brains are also very good at what they do, but as a consequence of their expansive abilities, our paths to surviving and thriving are not nearly so clear-cut. Our intense desire for feeling right is but one example of this uniquely human reality, and what this chapter is all about.
Blinded by the Bleeding Obvious
Meet Phil, a youth program specialist at a school for deaf and blind students, responsible for the well-being and mentoring of students living at the institution. Phil (who, by the way, is quite a smart guy—Mensa member to boot) recalls a situation when he started the job: He was making nightly rounds of all the floors in the blind student dorm to ensure that every student was in his or her room and accounted for. In his previous experience at other institutions, room checks were synonymous with "lights out," but in this case he was instructed that blind students often sleep with their lights on (because lights, on or off, don't matter to them either way) and the administration preferred that the lights stay on for safety reasons.
As he made his rounds, floor after floor, he found that all the students' lights were on and in each case a student was in the room. When he came to a room with the lights off (the exception to what was now a well-established rule) he walked into the darkness and called out the student's name from his roster. No answer. He called again, more emphatically. Still no answer. After a third panicky call and no response, he checked all the remaining rooms, bathrooms, and hallways, and, still not finding the student, rushed to the administration office to report him missing. Phil was asked if he was absolutely sure that the student was missing, and he affirmed that he had thoroughly inspected the entire building and "was certain" that the student was not in the room or anywhere else in the vicinity. His statement triggered a campus-wide search for the young student that spilled out well into the city and went on for hours.
At some point during the search, something occurred to Phil that sent nervous energy tingling through his limbs. He ran back up to the floor of the student's room (still entirely dark), blindly reached around an inside wall, and flicked on the light switch. The student was lying comfortably in his bed with earphones on.
How did Phil overlook something that in hindsight seems so obvious? Let's rewind and see what happened. First, Phil was introduced to a new "rule" for success: when lights are on, success is achieved. In his previous positions, the reverse was true, so his brain recalibrated to the parameters of the new rule. He then experienced multiple instances of the lights being on—room after room, floor after floor. These experiences reinforced his brain's recalibration and solidified the new rule.
To put all this another way: Phil's attention became exceedingly selective. A change to the rule tripped his attention alarm, and the urgency of the alarm overrode consideration of other options. Phil became blind to details that could have changed the outcome—specifically, turning on the light. Phil's behavior is an example of "selective attention," also called "selectivity bias"—the tendency to orient oneself toward and process information from only one part of our environment to the exclusion of other parts, no matter how obvious those parts may be.
Psychologists have uncovered how this dynamic works by using a research method called the Eriksen Flankers Task. Participants are shown three sets of symbols—a middle symbol flanked by a symbol on either side—flashed briefly on a screen. In some cases the flanking symbols point toward the middle symbol (these are called congruent symbols), and in some cases they point away from it (incongruent), and in some cases neither (neutral). After each symbol set is flashed, participants tell the researchers whether the symbols were congruent, incongruent, or neutral, and are also asked to rate how confident they are in their response.
The results are remarkably consistent: Participants say they are highly confident in their responses, but end up being wrong more than half the time. The reason is that it's shockingly easy to influence the brain to ignore a large part of its environment. By simply flashing the symbols in a pattern and then changing the pattern, the brain remains selectively focused on one variable to the exclusion of others—it simply does not "see" them. Time is a big part of the flankers task. The symbols are purposely flashed for just a moment, forcing the participants to make a quick determination before the next set is flashed. When more time is allotted between sets, responses significantly improve.
By far, the most entertaining research illustrating how extreme the selectivity effect can be is the "Gorillas in Our Midst" study by psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. Study participants were asked to watch a video of a group of people passing a basketball and count how many times the ball is passed. While they are counting, a woman dressed in a gorilla costume slowly walks into the scene, stops halfway to beat her chest, and then slowly walks out of the scene, for a total of nine seconds on screen. After the video ends, participants were asked to answer a few questions, such as "Did you see anything unusual in the video?" and "Did you notice anyone or anything other than the basketball players?" Finally, they were asked, "Did you see the gorilla?" More than half of the participants replied that they had not seen anything unusual, and certainly not a gorilla.
Simons and Chabris successfully catalyzed selective attention by telling the participants to focus on the ball and count the passes. Following this pattern, most of the observers never saw the bizarre sight that appeared right before their eyes.
Participants in these studies report that they are shocked at just how wrong they were. People who complete the flankers task frequently say they were "certain" they had it right. People who complete the gorilla study are amazed they missed something so obvious.
Coming back to Phil, as long as the rooms he was inspecting were all the same, he could effectively judge them as "right" or "wrong" with very little time. In fact, this part of his job became so easy that he was probably flying through it—getting faster as he went. When he came to a room detached from the pattern, he didn't slow down the judgment train a bit; the result was that he didn't see what was right in front of him (albeit in the dark).
What could Phil have done differently? The answer probably looks obvious by now—he should have slowed down. Another few moments of deliberation would likely have opened his cerebral eyes to details he was leaving out. But, to do so, he also would have had to challenge his sense of being right—his marriage to certainty. Just as flankers task participants are shocked that they are wrong, Phil, we can safely assume, was shocked that he'd missed such an obvious detail. At least Phil's story ended relatively well, which is not always the case for those in the certainty jungle, as we'll soon see.
With great injury to my teenage sense of entitlement, I worked at a drugstore in my mid teens to earn enough money for idle pursuits. One day I was running the cash register when a man with a subtle but noticeable nervous twitch approached the sales counter. He said he had questions about what type of film to use in his new 35mm camera and motioned to several different boxes of film displayed behind me.
As I turned to pull down a couple boxes to show him the difference between 200- and 400-speed film, I noticed a woman wearing a large overcoat milling around the front of an aisle where cartons of cigarettes were stacked (back then, some stores still sold cigs on shelves). I continued talking to the man but kept an eye on the woman as well. The man noticed that I was distracted and started talking faster to get my attention back on him. A couple seconds later, I saw the woman stash a carton of cigarettes into her overcoat. That's when it dawned on me that the man and woman were working together—he was distracting me while she looted the joint.
I grabbed a phone and dialed up Ed, the manager in the back office. At this point, the man and woman realized they were caught and both started speed-walking toward the door, with a "the jig is up but look inconspicuous anyway" shuffle. Ed sprinted to the front of the store to stop them from leaving. Within seconds, he had a choice to make: He could either try to stop the man or try to stop the woman, but he could not stop both. One was sure to get out. His subjective determination was that the woman would be easiest to stop, so he reached out and grabbed her by the shoulder. Bad decision. She grabbed his hand, swung around to face him, and while he looked on in horror, pulled back his index finger until it audibly snapped. He fell to his knees, yelling in agony, and both the man and the woman ran out the door.
Excerpted from WHAT MAKES YOUR BRAIN HAPPY AND WHY YOU SHOULD DO THE OPPOSITE by DAVID DISALVO Copyright © 2011 by David DiSalvo. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 18, 2013
One of the best books I've ever read! I'm fifteen, but everything is in simple layman's terms. Set aside a serious block of time to read this one: you won't be able to pull your nose out of this book! Absolutely worth every last penny I paid!
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Posted October 14, 2013
This book brings the neurological "why" to the phrase I love to use on my yoga students..." if you gravitate to gentle yoga, try a more rigorous class, and vice versa". It's not only good for you to challenge your preferences, it's how our brains, and whole selves stay resilient. Here's the support for that reasoning, in a readable, relatable package. I read a lot of nonfiction, this was a good read in the genera. If your interested, get it.
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Posted December 13, 2013
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Posted October 16, 2013
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Posted June 3, 2013
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