- Downplay your interest
- See who the salesman approaches
- Go with your gut and buy it!
- Move away and observe
If you really want to drive home in your dream car, you should listen to your instincts, which are products of your brain’s horizontal intraparietal sulcus. Subconsciously, your brain is always doing background calculations that create a numerical intuition to help decide some of life’s biggest decisions.
The average height of fashion models is 5'10" (70 inches), and few are taller than six feet (72 inches). If you guessed taller than 70 inches, you might have anchored your decision on our taller examples and the idea that all models are tall. Your brain tends to draw conclusions based on prior knowledge.
Your Brain's Hardware
Understanding your internal operating system.
You’re probably accustomed to trading in your old smartphone every so often for a new, better one with a lot of cool new features. And you regularly update the operating system on your computer. But when it comes to your brain, you probably figure that you’re stuck with those same old glitch-ridden, out-of-warranty neurons that you’ve muddled along with for years. Well, we’ve got news for you. Your brain has a lot more plasticity — the ability to adapt and grow — than you realize. And like, say, Microsoft Office or the iPhone, it also has a whole lot of capabilities that you probably haven’t yet tapped into. In this article, we’re going to look at how it’s possible to hack your own brain, enable it to work more smoothly and efficiently, and access and utilize mental software features that you probably didn’t even know you had.
How Your Brain Is Actually Better Than a Computer
You’ve probably seen science fiction movies in which super-powerful computers become smarter than people and then turn evil and decide to wipe out humanity. And indeed, there are real-life futurists such as Ray Kurzweil, who’ve predicted that machines will pass up the human brain in the very near future.
But that hasn’t yet happened, in part because it would be hard to design a machine and software with all the amazing capabilities of the hunk of matter inside your skull. For one thing, your brain is a lot more complicated structurally than even the most powerful supercomputer. You may have read that the human brain contains 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells, but in truth, nobody is really sure. A 2009 article by Brazilian neuroscientists reported that the average number actually is around 86 billion, give or take eight billion, while a study by Stanford University researchers, conducted the following year, put the number at around 200 billion. But no matter which is true, that’s still a lot. Each of those neurons has probably tens of thousands of synapses, or connections that transmit impulses to other neurons. You’ve got about as many of these connections in your cerebral cortex are there are stars in 1,500 Milky Way galaxies. And all of this dense, intricate circuitry is jammed into a space that fits inside your hat.
But there are other differences, too. Your brain isn’t a circuit board, with little wires and stuff that’s all neatly stuck there, unchangeably. Your brain’s synapses, which are less than a thousandth of a millimeter in diameter, are basically little gaps. Your neurons forge links to each other by squirting out tiny bits of chemicals, called neurotransmitters, to make the connection. So how much of those chemicals you produce, and how well they work in your particular brain, help influence what your brain does. But the number of connections that you have, and the strength of the connections, varies at different points in your life, or even different times of day.
Even more importantly, your brain physically changes when it receives new information. Your synapses actually grow when your brain is exposed to a stimulus, forming new connections. Interestingly, a study published in 2013 by Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientists found that because synaptic connections are more plastic after having been recently strengthened, too much intense and repeated stimulation can actually wipe out the effects of learning.
That’s why college students get better results when they study regularly for moderate amounts of time regularly, rather than trying to cram it all into their heads with an all-nighter before the exam.
Additionally, although neuroscientists aren’t quite sure how much capacity your brain has for storing information, they suspect that it’s a vast amount — possibly as much as a million gigabytes of information. (To put that in perspective, in a 2009 New York Times article, two researchers estimated that your brain could hold about a third of the entire content of the Internet at the time.)
And unlike a computer, whose parts do only what they’re specifically designed to do, your brain is highly flexible and utilizes a distributed system, brain areas perform multiple functions at once, and a particular function may take place across multiple areas of the brain. And your brain can respond differently to the same stimuli at different times and in different circumstances.
In fact, your brain is such a marvelous piece of hardware that computer designers actually are trying to build machines that are more like it. IBM researchers in Switzerland, for example, are using fluids, rather than wired connections, to transmit electricity inside experimental computers, imitating the way that human synapses work.
Your Mental Software’s Hidden Features
But even though your brain is more complicated and in many ways better than any computer, it also has similarities to the machine on your desk. If we think of our ability to think, and the patterns and processes that we use in thinking, as the equivalent of a computer’s operating system, your noggin has one key similarity. Just as Windows or the Mac OS have all sorts of really cool features and programs built into them that many people never figure out how to use, your brain has abilities that you may not even be aware of, but which you can tap into if you know the right tricks.
For example, your brain’s operating system features mental shortcuts known as heuristics. They can help you to manage the load of cognitive work that you need to do, when you’re busy or tired. For example, your brain stores information in semantic categories or folders. Each folder has one typical word that represents it, which is called a semantic prototype. If you clear your mind of distractions, you can figuratively reboot and reactivate your semantic categories. Instead of clicking restart, as you would with your computer, take a walk, get in the shower, perform some breathing exercises, or do something that will allow your brain to take a break and start over. That will enable your hidden software features to dig through the folders in your brain, and come up with a solution that otherwise might have eluded you.
Your brain also has a hidden app called numerical intuition, which allows you to crunch numbers rapidly and make surprisingly accurate guestimates. This activity takes place in an area called the horizontal intraparietal sulcus, also known as HIPS.
And just as you can seemingly speed up your computer by adding more memory chips, your brain also has the ability to boost its fluid intelligence — that is, the ability to think creatively and productively — by utilizing your short-term memory.
How to Keep Your Brain from Crashing
If you’ve got a PC, you probably know that you should regularly defragment your hard drive, install updates to your operating system, and run a registry cleanup program to get rid of errors that can cause your machine to slow down, malfunction or even crash altogether and leave you staring at the notorious blue screen of death.
You have to take care to maintain your brain, too. Getting adequate rest, for example is essential to performing at your mental best. And that doesn’t just mean getting a good night’s sleep. In a study by University of California-Berkeley researcher Matt Walker, subjects who took a midday 90-minute nap found that they performed 20 percent better at memory exercises than those who didn’t.
Like a computer’s operating system, your brain has certain design flaws that you have to watch out for. Those same heuristic shortcuts that help speed your thinking, for example, can also cause you to make mistakes. One shortcut that you have to be particularly wary about is anchoring, which is when your brain relies upon familiar information to make a decision about something else. Anchoring is often useful, if your brain is using information that’s relevant to what you’re considering. But it also can result in cognitive bias, where you interpret the information in a way that fits your preconceptions, and miss or don’t give adequate weight to conflicting information. When you’re making a decision, it’s important to step back and make sure that you’ve considered all the facts.
And just as your computer can be infected by malware, it’s possible for some crafty person to hack into your brain and exploit its vulnerabilities. For example, your hippocampus, your brain’s memory manager, is capable of altering memories as you play them back in your head, adding new information that you’ve received from a source that you trust. That can enable a skilled con artist to manipulate your memory of an event, and even to convince you that you saw something that never actually happened.
Perhaps the most famous example is psychologist Elizabeth Loftus’ study published in 2001 in which she and fellow researchers managed to convince subjects that they’d visited Disneyland as a child and met a performer dressed as Bugs Bunny—a character from Disney rival Warner Bros., who most certainly would never have been allowed inside. Fortunately, you can avoid the misinformation effect, as it’s called, by taking detailed notes of what has happened, while everything is still fresh in your mind.
Reboot Your State of Mind
How meditation can improve your perspective.
In the Brain Games episode "Retrain Your Brain," we learned that although your brain is vastly more complex and powerful than a PC or smartphone, there also are some important similarities. First, your mental operating system is full of hidden features that you probably don’t even realize you have, some of which run without you even realizing it. You can tap into these capabilities — override them, if you need to do things differently. Second, when you get mentally stuck, there are tricks you can use to essentially reboot your brain, and start your mental processes running smoothly again.
One particularly powerful method of rebooting your brain is meditation, an ancient practice that people have been using for thousands of years to clear their brains of distractions, reduce stress and achieve calm, and to open their minds to new insights. It’s particularly useful for reducing anxiety. Researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine, in a study published in 2013 in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, found that meditators activate the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and area involved with executive-level functioning which controls worrying.
At the same time, with increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the portion of the brain that governs emotion, anxiety was decreased. Skilled meditators can even learn to control their bodies in amazing ways. Harvard researchers, for example, have found that Tibetan monks skilled in meditation not only are able to endure extreme cold, but actually seem to have the ability to raise the temperature in their fingers and toes by 17 degrees.
Though skilled meditators develop and hone their mind-controlling abilities through years of diligent practice, you don’t need to be a monk or a yoga devotee to benefit from mindfulness — that is, the experience of living fully in the moment, rather than worrying about the past or the future. Here are some basic techniques:
Breathe deep. This is a great way to focus your attention on the moment and eliminate distracting thoughts. Breathe deeply and slowly, and concentrate upon the sensation of each breath as you inhale and exhale through your nostrils. If your attention wanders, don’t be discouraged. Just calmly shift back to focusing on the act of breathing.
Scan your body. As you meditate, shift your attention up and down your body. Try to focus on the sensations in each body part — whether you feel warmth, chilliness, relaxation or tension. This will help you to get more in touch with the feeling of being alive, rather than dwelling upon your thoughts.
Repeat a mantra. Simply repeating a word over and over again can help to clear your mind and achieve calm. It doesn’t matter what word you use—whether it’s "peace" or "calm," or something meaningless, such as "spaghetti."
Get up and move. Contrary to what you might assume, you don’t have to be seated in a cross-legged position to meditate. In fact, you don’t need to sit still at all. You can combine meditation with walking, by slowing down your pace and concentrating upon the movement of your legs and feet, and repeating your mantra and breathing rhythmically as you move.