Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life

Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life

by David DiSalvo


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781939529008
Publisher: BenBella Books, Inc.
Publication date: 11/12/2013
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 424,455
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

David DiSalvo is the author of three books about the human brain and cognitive psychology, including What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite and Brain Changer. In his first book, he coined the term "science-help," which has since become the standard term for describing science-based self-help approaches. He has also spent 18 years in top management positions with corporations and non-profit organizations, and has consulted with several Fortune 500 companies and major public agencies in the U.S. and abroad. He is an award-winning marketing communications specialist and an accomplished science and technology journalist whose work appears in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, Slate, Esquire, Scientific American Mind and several other publications. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt




The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.


We begin our discussion with a graphic, one that we'll revisit throughout the book as a sort of visual anchor for the concepts central to metacognition, adaptation, and major looping highways in between. The first stop is at the top: defining metacognition itself.

What Is Metacognition?

Problem-solving techniques — like those used in a variety of cognitive and behavioral therapies, for example — rely on a tool unique to humans, one that we use all the time (albeit intuitively, without strategy and typically without precision) whether we realize it or not. What this tool does, in a word, is facilitate detachment from a problem. It allows us to step away and apart from whatever is vexing us, and by doing so to gain perspective that wouldn't be possible to attain in the direct path of the problem.

The tool is metacognition, our ability to think about our thinking. We are not all on equal footing when it comes to using this tool effectively. Acquiring skill requires mental training; an inborn ability does not produce mastery. Once mastered, however, there is no more powerful internal tool available to us to solve problems, tackle challenges, and navigate paths to reach our goals.

Any time we reflect upon our thinking processes and knowledge, we are metacognizing. Indeed, most of us do this all day long, though the way we do so generally lacks direction and tends to swerve into fields of endless rumination. To get the most from metacognition, we have to train ourselves to focus its power and forge the discipline necessary to stay focused despite distractions. This is a challenge, but meeting the challenge yields tangible results.

To put a finer point on all of this: metacognition is our most powerful internal tool to adjust our thinking and improve thinking outcomes.

Some of the ways this is accomplished — which we'll discuss throughout the book — include:

• Influencing feedback loops, the engines of our adaptive brains

• Addressing cognitive distortions (also known as "thinking errors")

• Catalyzing neurochemical changes in the brain

What Is a Feedback Loop?

Throughout this book, reference is made to a term we hear so frequently we seldom question what it means: "feedback loop." As it turns out, this cultural volleyball of a term is extremely important for understanding how our minds work; so important, in fact, that I think a strong argument can be made that feedback loops are the very engines of our adaptive brains.

One of the bankable truisms of human nature is that beneath the surface of the raging sea of complexity we experience each day, we can find a few basic governing principles that explain a great deal of why we do what we do. For roughly forty years, research across disciplines such as psychology, sociology, economics, engineering, epidemiology, and business strategy has exhaustively deconstructed and validated feedback loops as a solid governing principle with expansive explanatory power. Once we get a good grasp on how they work, we'll be able to see that our brains house the most magnificent feedback loops on the planet.

Feedback loops operate in four distinct stages, each inextricably linked to the next. We'll discuss each in more detail, but in short these stages, as defined by science writer Thomas Goetz, are:

1. Evidence

2. Relevance

3. Consequence

4. Action

The Evidence Stage

Every feedback loop begins with data. In the broadest sense, data can be any information that's observed, collected, measured, and stored — whether it comes from within you or without. Observing how coworkers interact at the office, seeing numbers displayed when you step on the scale, or homing in on that weird buzzing noise coming from your right front tire while driving are examples of ways we collect data.

The Relevance Stage

Here we move from data collection and storage to data input — but not data in its raw form. For data to become useful in the feedback loop, it must also be meaningful. Data that doesn't "click" is disregarded; it has to be relevant to the needs of the individual. For example, observing how your coworkers interact moves from raw data collection to meaningful data input when, perhaps, you sense that stronger integration with your peers will help you enjoy your time at work more than you do now, and maybe it will even help advance your career in the long run. That's the emotional "click" that keeps the loop moving.

The Consequence Stage

Once we have meaningful data, the loop powers forward — but it won't continue unless we add another dimension: we have to know what to do with the information. You've made observations of how your coworkers interact, and you've identified an emotionally relevant reason why this information is meaningful. What's the consequence of possessing this information? Now you need to make a determination about the consequences of either doing something with the information or doing nothing — which brings us to the final stage.

The Action Stage

When the requirements of relevance and consequence have been met, we are now faced with the challenge of doing. Continuing the office scenario: you've determined that failing to better integrate with this peer group will leave you floating uncomfortably at the periphery of the office social scene. As a consequence, you may miss out on networking opportunities that could benefit your career. Your path to action is illuminated. You move definitively ahead and take steps to improve connections with members of the group to accomplish your ultimate objective of becoming a regular and important part of it.

Once action is initiated, it's measured, and new observations are made — new evidence is collected and calibrated — and the feedback loop begins anew. With each rotation of the loop, you move closer to achieving your objectives.

Given this multistage explanation, it's easy to see why feedback loops are central to countless disciplines. Engineering, for example, relies on feedback loops to plan, design, develop, and test everything from water-main pump stations to complex software applications. Business strategy relies on feedback loops to develop and launch business plans and marketing campaigns. Epidemiology relies on feedback loops to develop vaccines and new antiviral treatments. The list of examples is endless.

For our purposes, we're going to focus on what feedback loops mean in the cognitive context — we're going to remain focused on the brain. Equally important, we're going to focus on how feedback loops function as the brain's "engines." To put an even finer point on that: we're going to delve into how multiple feedback loops operating simultaneously and perpetually make our brain the incredible marvel that gets us through each day, moving us past obstacles, around threats, and ever forward toward our goals.

How the Human Brain "Does" Metacognition: The Metacognition Loop

Metacognition is not a mere theoretical concept — it is a function of our brains with vast neural underpinnings. The brain structures that contribute to metacognition are not in any single place in the brain (as is true of most of our advanced cerebral abilities, such as memory). Rather, they communicate through neural connections in a mental network spanning multiple brain regions, particularly in the brain area known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) — the most recently evolved part of the human brain, responsible for higher-order thinking and reasoning. To simplify how the brain accomplishes metacognition, it's useful to think of a feedback loop that incorporates both conscious and unconscious components of the mind.

The System

The loop begins at what I call "The System." This is where a great deal of unconscious processing occurs via what neuroscientists refer to as "modules." Imagine for a moment trying to consciously control every movement of your right hand and arm, then your left leg, and then your head tilting to the right and so forth. Thankfully we don't have to "think" about these things on a routine basis: we can deliberately decide to make these movements, but we don't have to think about how. A motor-function-control module within The System operates such movements automatically without the need for direct conscious effort. Constant conscious monitoring and control of such movements — to keep your balance in gravity, for example — would be impossible, never mind the need to control vital functions and organs such as your blood pressure, your lungs, your heart, your nervous system, your digestion, and almost everything else happening in your body. They all happen unconsciously within The System, the most complex processing center on the planet. However, information from The System can reach conscious awareness. Some of this information arises automatically (hence the term "automatic thoughts" — thoughts that "pop" into consciousness), but with deliberate effort some information from The System can be moved to what I call "conscious mind space." And we can delve, to an extent, into the vast modular system to make adjustments.

The Mental Theater

To understand how information from The System reaches conscious mind space, it's useful to visualize this process as images being projected onto a screen. I call this screen "the mental theater." In the mental theater, our conscious processing abilities — principally residing in the prefrontal cortex — can focus on particular states of The System (for instance, abstract modules such as social emotions or even physical modules such as blood pressure), which we may then deliberately choose to influence. In other words, information stored in The System can be retrieved or in a sense "checked out," like library books, for further inspection in the mental theater.

Take, for example, certain social emotional responses you may have. Sometimes you may not understand why someone's actions strike you as, say, morally repugnant (you just "know" that they do). But if you project your emotional associations from the state of The System onto the screen of your conscious mental theater, you can take some time to figure out your reaction and perhaps come up with new insight into your thinking. Maybe you realize, for example, that the root of your moral outrage is a hazy memory of similar actions by someone in your past. Perhaps this person reminds you of a cousin who bullied you many years ago. This realization is then looped back into The System, and in this example, back into the module regulating your sense of social emotion. So the next time you encounter this person, he or she won't automatically trigger your moral indignation.

At a more basic level, we can influence tangible dynamics like blood pressure through the metacognitive loop. Once we have a state of The System such as blood pressure in the theater of our mind (brought to the theater, in this case, via a feedback technology such as a blood pressure monitor, the inflatable arm cuff we're all quite familiar with), we can use any number of consciously controlled means to affect it — meditation, perhaps, or other forms of relaxation techniques. Even choosing to take medication to control your blood pressure is the result of conscious assessment. In that case, it isn't only an adjustment to thinking that's looping back into The System, but also a chemical agent that will influence The System module controlling your blood pressure.

Whether a module is emotional or physical, conscious influence is only possible through metacognitive processing — or a "conscious detachment" (which we'll discuss shortly) from whatever it is we're interested in assessing and possibly changing.

Metacognition in the Consciousness Context

OK, we've focused on the feedback loop that spans the reaches of the unconscious System and the conscious mental theater. But now we have to step back and take a wider view, because focusing only on the loop does not tell us the complete story of metacognition. We now have to address an exceptionally challenging problem in neuroscience — how metacognition operates within the greater context of consciousness. To work through this problem, we'll begin with a new graphic.

Back in the day, Freudians would have said that the unconscious was a seething cauldron of unfelt emotions, and the purpose of psychoanalysis was to venture with a guide into this mysterious, frightening space and track those feelings to their primal sources in childhood desires and fantasies. Today, cognitive scientists speak of the "new unconscious" to differentiate their concept from the Freudian notion of the unconscious. The new unconscious isn't free from the chaos of unfelt emotions, needs, wants, and desires — but what we now understand, after more than a half a century of intense research, is that the unconscious is more akin to a massive modular processing system than to a psycho-emotional abyss. The best estimates of this system's power are that it handles roughly 11 million pieces of information per second.

In contrast, the best estimate for how much information our conscious mind space can handle is about 40 pieces per second. If we broke out the consciousness picture into percentages, conscious mind space would account for less than a percent of the brain's processing mojo; the rest resides in the new unconscious — a modular and unfathomably powerful mega machine.

This is where the discussion gets tricky. It's tempting to believe that we can directly access and change what's happening in the unconscious. But this is largely a misperception known as the "introspection illusion." Introspection — literally "looking into oneself" — is not a waste of time, but it's also not a magical key to unlocking the unconscious. Unfortunately, many self-help and new-age books would have us believe that introspection is such a key, and that learning new (or ancient) methods of introspection will get us what we want from our unconscious minds, as if on tap.

From a science-help perspective, we have to take a more grounded view of what we can and cannot accomplish via introspection or any other inwardly focused techniques. Access to the unconscious is possible, but it is limited, and that's not a bad thing. Evolution has installed a system of inestimable value in our brains called "automaticity," which allows all of those unconscious modules we've been referring to (those and thousands more) to run without conscious intervention. Most of the thoughts and feelings we experience from our unconscious are non-verbal and "epistemic" — they're not quite tangible, but they're also not entirely abstract. These include the feelings of knowing and of forgetting; the feelings of confidence and of uncertainty; and the "tip-of-the-tongue" phenomenon (e.g., "I know the name of that rock band but it's not coming to me — but I know I know it!").

Epistemic thoughts and feelings percolate from the unconscious into a space known as "lower-order metacognition" (see the lower section of the metacognition box in figure 1.5). In this space, we begin grappling with unconscious unknowns, but they aren't yet in the theater of the mind. That doesn't happen until the command and control center — our prefrontal cortex — loops them into "higher-order metacognition" (also called "conscious metarepresentation" — the upper part of the metacognition box in the graphic). This is the part of our mind where a certain conscious clarity asserts itself — where we can mentally detach and see what we're thinking and feeling.

As noted, we can handle about 40 pieces of information per second in this conscious mind space. That's a sliver of what our unconscious is handling, but it's not an inconsequential amount of processing power. We can accomplish quite a lot at 40 pieces per second — and the better we become at using metacognition to our advantage, the more efficient we become at leveraging this processing power. We are, in effect, training our brains to run the metacognition loop more often and more efficiently — and that is the essence of our brains' adaptive ability.

Metacognitive Awareness

With the basics of metacognition laid out, let's now talk about something psychologists refer to as "metacognitive awareness" and how it fits into our exploration thus far. Psychologists use a questionnaire ranking system to determine a person's level of metacognitive awareness — how aware we are that we're actively examining and influencing our thinking. The more metacognitvely aware you are, the less you use autopilot to guide your thinking processes.


Excerpted from "Brain Changer"
by .
Copyright © 2013 David DiSalvo.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Jena Pincott xvii

Preface: Rethink xxi

Part I Know

Introduction: Brain Changing: The Mind Shift Has Begun 3

Chapter 1 Metacognition: The Impassive Watcher in the Tower 11

Chapter 2 Mentalization: The Original Mind Game 29

Chapter 3 Pragmatic Adaptation: Changing Thinking, Changing Life 37

Chapter 4 Tracing The Narrative Thread: The Power of Scripting and Salience 57

Chapter 5 The Mindscape: Looping It All Together 67

Part II Do

The Thought Box: 30 Tools to Enhance Thinking and Catalyze Action 75

Part III Expand

The Library of the Mind 143

Fiction and Memoirs 169

Movies 173

Definitions 179


Appendix 1 What Is Science-Help? 193

Appendix 2 Why We Need Pragmatic Science 197

Appendix 3 On the Challenges of Science Communication 201

Appendix 4 Homage to the Godfather of Brain Changing William James 205

Afterword Donald Wilson Bush 209

Acknowledgments 215

Excerpt from David DiSalvo's The Brain in Your Kitchen 217

About the Author 223

Notes 225

Index 233

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