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Mark Bowden


Why You Should Question Your Brain

Posted: 09/23/2013 10:56 am

Here is a challenge: thinking back on all the people you have passed by today, how many do you actually remember? I would bet good money that even though you may have crossed paths with hundreds or even thousands of people today (certainly if, like me, you have been moving through a bustling metropolis like Toronto), you can only remember just one or two new faces, if any at all!

Our primitive brain, a collection of our oldest inherited neural modules designed to stimulate us to approach the most likely rewards around us and avoid risks to our survival, is also designed only to bring to our attention those people who look like a friend, an enemy or a potential sexual partner. And as for the rest? Well, the primitive brain simply erases them causing us to look straight through them.

Nothing wrong with that. It is a great system for only spending our energy on enacting strategies that balance the most efficient gain of benefits with the avoidance of risks. But the decision making criteria for these unconscious choices we make are deeply rooted in some hard wired theories we all share about what opportunity and what cost most likely look like, some of which are, in evolutionary terms about 500-million years old. It's a pretty ancient system that continues to motivate our behaviours in our very modern world.

This primitive and unconscious choice system keeps us in a comfortable place. Choosing behaviours outside of this can feel very uncomfortable. Notice how, right now you the reader are comfortable enough to allow your head to occupy the space of this article. Take a look around you...no risks and no better rewards...reading this feels quite pleasant because you can be indifferent to your immediate surroundings, including all the other humans in it -- so says the instinct of your primitive brain.

Whilst we can be happy to feel comfortable enough right now spending time focused intently on this article, at the same time what great opportunities are you missing out on by not engaging with the real live people around you who you are impulsively indifferent to? I understand that you don't feel naturally compelled to start any kind of significant interaction with them. To go and start a conversation with anyone of them might feel a bit awkward and unpleasant, if not a little fake or dishonest, particularly in the guise that you have "shown up" in as you focus in on this blog.

Your nature tells you that those around you right now do not pose any clear and present threat to your survival, nor will they bring you any treats; however, if we were to investigate with a more open conscious curiosity our unconscious choice to discount those others, our gut-feeling would quite likely prove to be short-sighted. This process though could take time and our primitive decision making equipment likes to make quick, comfortable decisions: ones that take fractions of a second to get you to a place of satisfaction rather than minutes or hours, only to find yourself undecided.

So whilst out impulsive reactions and the knock-on actions we take align to the goals of our primitive brain to ensure our survival, they can prove unhelpful as we strive to make choices and draw out of ourselves those counterintuitive behaviours needed to connect with the people that can participate in accomplishing some of the bigger goals.

To this extent I am advocating that we all test and question the assumptions our primitive brain has made to keep us content. In my TEDxToronto 2013 talk at Koerner Hall, September 26, I will be examining how we judge everyone around us unconsciously and by this miss out on some great opportunities. I'll be suggesting that being more adaptable and purposeful in choosing the way we show up with others rather than falling back on our more natural intuitive behaviours, could get us closer to seeing our biggest ideas come to life. I hope you'll join me.

For those not attending this year's TEDxToronto, the event will be streaming live throughout the day on September 26 at TEDxToronto.com.

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  • Turn Your Photos Upside Down

    If you find yourself losing focus or easily distracted during your work day, <a href="http://www.canyonranch.com/about_canyon_ranch/canyon_ranch_experts/canyon_ranch_medicine/">Dr. Stephen Brewer, medical director at the Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona,</a> says try engaging your brain and attention levels by turning pictures upside down in your house or on your desk at work. He says the instant your pictures are upside down, you brain will automatically go into "alert mode" and help you pick up other small details during your day.

  • Involve Other Senses In Your Routine

    Start your day by stimulating your senses when you get dressed. "Try dressing with your eyes closed or choose outfits based on texture and not how they look," Brewer says. Engaging unused senses for <a href="http://health.howstuffworks.com/human-body/systems/nervous-system/how-to-improve-your-memory1.htm">day-to-day routines can improve your memory and stimulate your mind,</a> according to Health.HowStuffWorks.com.

  • Wake Up To A New Smell

    You may already be used to waking up to the smell of coffee or pancakes on the weekend, but Brewer suggests stimulating your senses by leaving cooked vanilla beans by your bed or in your kitchen overnight. This can enhance your sense of smell the next day.

  • Use Your Other Hand

    When you're brushing your teeth or brushing your hair, Brewer suggests switching hands — or using the 'other hand' — to help stimulate your brain and senses. One study found that <a href="http://www.nwitimes.com/niche/shore/health/using-your-other-hand-benefits-your-brain/article_6da931ea-b64f-5cc2-9583-e78f179c2425.html">using the opposite hand or less dominant hand can increase your brain's creativity levels</a>, according to the Lake Michigan Shore.

  • Meditate

    Sit back and relax. Meditation, Brewer says, can improve your memory and help your mind focus. One study found that <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/06/11/meditation-brain-study.html">meditation can improve brain function and could even prevent mental illnesses</a>, according to CBC News.

  • Get Some Sleep!

    Brewer says sleeping — at least 7 to 8 hours a night — can also help improve your memory. One study found that getting a good <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/06/050629070337.htm">night's sleep can trigger changes in the brain and can boost your memory levels</a>, according to researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre.

  • Go To A Beautiful Environment

    We all have memories of our favourite places. Maybe it's your childhood backyard or vacation to a sandy beach. These memories stay with us in rich detail, Brewer says, and travelling to these places (if possible) or finding new places that help create memories of equal depth can also help improve your memory.

  • Talk To Yourself

    Thinking out loud can do more good than harm. One study found that <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/04/24/talking-to-yourself-may-help-your-brain/">talking to yourself can help improve your memory temporarily</a>, according to ABC News. The study found that people who talked to themselves had better luck finding things that were lost.


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