Un­rav­el­ing the mys­ter­ies and mar­vels of the brain and how it works

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Iam at my com­puter, writ­ing this book re­view, and the television has been on in the back­ground. The midterm elec­tions are only days away, and in the past hour, I have seen at least 20 po­lit­i­cal ads. I amintheWash­ing­ton,D.C.area,but that does not mat­ter. Cer­tainly, my ex­pe­ri­ence is shared by oth­ers through­out the coun­try.

The ads have been stri­dent, bom­bas­tic, ac­cusatory and gen­er­ally an­noy­ing. They have clogged the air­ways for weeks — even my chil­dren have be­gun com­plain­ing — and pa­tients have brought them up in psy­chother­a­py­ses­sions.An­dasIen­dure the­setele­vi­sion­ads,Iwon­der­howis it that their pro­duc­ers be­lieve I will be any­thing but turned off by this bom­bard­ment of over­stated in­dict­ment and false prom­ise (you see, I am no fool, or at least, that is what I would like to be­lieve).

Af­ter read­ing Richard Res­tak’s book, “The Naked Brain,” I have learned that th­ese cam­paign man­agers and ad pro­duc­ers are not so fool­ish af­ter all. If neu­ro­science re­search has any­thing to say about it, they are do­ing ex­actly what they need to do to achieve their stated goals.

Thead­ver­tis­er­sknowtha­trep­e­ti­tion, emo­tion­ally in­tense pre­sen­ta­tion and con­tent fo­cus­ing on dan­ger and worry will stick with their au­di­ences like glue and will, whether thoseau­di­ences­likeitornot,im­pact de­ci­sion mak­ing at a sub­con­scious level. Th­ese ads have been de­signed to en­gage us at a level of brain func­tion that is largely hard-wired, im­per­cep­ti­ble and im­pos­si­ble for us to con­sciously con­trol, no mat­ter what our po­lit­i­cal lean­ings may be.

In “The Naked Brain,” Dr. Res­tak takes us through many cur­rent find­ings and the­ory in neu­ro­science. In his­in­tro­duc­tion,hewarn­so­fa­world where politi­cians, ad­ver­tis­ers and oth­ers in­vested in the re­sults of our de­ci­sion­mak­ing­will­have­more­con­trol over that than any of us can or should com­fort­ably ac­cept. He el­e­gant­ly­takesthere­ad­erthroughaseries of ex­per­i­ments, ex­trap­o­lat­ing their mean­ings, de­vel­op­ing the idea that our brains, ef­fi­cient tools that they are, both de­fine us as in­di­vid­u­al­san­dun­der­minethatin­di­vid­u­al­ity at the same time.

The au­thor tells us that “most of the things we know ex­ist out­side of our­con­sciou­saware­ness.”Heistalkingabout­thecog­ni­tive­un­con­scious, but not the one we are most familiar with, the one de­scribed by Sig­mund Freud:that­seething­caul­dronof­dark de­sires,re­pressed­mem­o­riesan­dall things gen­er­ally frowned upon in good so­ci­ety.

Dr. Res­tak is sim­ply de­scrib­ing what neu­ro­sci­en­tists are be­gin­ning to un­der­stand about how our brains do what they do, no small mat­ter, since our brains do rather a lot. Essen­tial­lythe­un­con­scious­sim­plyrep­re­sentsthosethought­sand­be­hav­iors that have been ha­bit­u­ated, or made au­to­matic, so that we do not have to waste en­ergy think­ing about them. They do not clog up the con­scious mind, leav­ing it avail­able for more novel or com­plex de­mands.

If much of what we think is un­con­scious, that means we don’t gen­er­ally know what we are or are not think­ing about in any sin­gle mo­ment. We do know that we are not think­ing about breath­ing, and that hap­pens any­way. We also know we thinkalot­less­about­driv­ingth­anwe prob­a­bly should. Few of us get through life with­out the ex­pe­ri­ence of ar­riv­ing home from work with no clear me­mory of how we got there.

But there are other things that hap­pen un­con­sciously that may seem less ob­vi­ous, or more dis­con­cert­ing. Did you know that we au­to­mat­i­cally mimic the be­hav­ior, di­alect or emo­tions ex­pressed by the peo­ple with whom we have con­tact ei­ther in­ti­mately or su­per­fi­cially?

We­can­watch­some­onedrinkacup of­teaandthe­samear­ea­so­four­brains will ac­ti­vate as if we our­selves were drink­ing that tea. We be­gin to mimic the­di­alectof­peo­ple­fro­moth­er­parts of the coun­try merely by spend­ing a few days with them. Hus­bands and wives who have been mar­ried for decades of­ten look alike, largely be­cause they have mim­icked each oth­ers’man­ner­isms­for­so­longth­atthey have de­vel­oped sim­i­lar fa­cial ex­pres­sions and wrin­kle pat­terns.

We are both the vec­tors and re­cip­i­entsof­so­cial­con­ta­gion,ex­plains Dr. Res­tak, say­ing that, “per­ceiv­ing an emo­tion ac­ti­vates the same brain cir­cuits used to gen­er­ate that emo­tion.” We, the au­thor so clearly ex­plains, are hard­wired to “res­onate with other brains,” a re­sult of our es­sen­tially so­cial na­ture.

Now, back to those po­lit­i­cal ads; those an­noy­ing, re­lent­less, neg­a­tive di­a­tribes. Do they ac­com­plish their in­tend­ed­goal?Dotheyaf­fec­tour­de­ci­sion mak­ing? Dr. Res­tak ex­plains that­neu­ro­sci­en­tist­shaveshown­that we re­spond more in­tensely to nega- tive stim­uli than to pos­i­tive. That cer­tainly ex­plains why those ads con­cen­trate on crime, war, sex­ual pec­ca­dil­loe­san­dotherdis­cour­ag­ing sub­jects. The more some­thing is re­peated,the­more­fa­mil­iar­it­be­comes, and the more likely it is that we be­lieveitsverac­ity.Ah,tha­t­ex­plain­s­the clog­ging of the air­ways.

And, fi­nally, our mem­o­ries are so plas­tic­thatth­ey­can­beal­tered­bythe in­tro­duc­tionofnewin­for­ma­tion,and we can be com­pletely un­aware that we­have­newmem­o­rieso­fold­e­vents. We will be­lieve that is what we have known all along. Quite in­tim­i­dat­ing re­ally.

“The Naked Brain” is a fas­ci­nat­ing book. It comes with a cau­tion, though: Most of the in­ter­pre­ta­tions of data should be taken with a grain of salt. The brain is a com­plex or­gan, and it is, at this junc­ture, only marginally un­der­stood.

En­joy the book, and take to heart Dr. Res­tak’s ul­ti­mate mes­sage: We can tran­scend our au­to­matic thoughts with ef­fort and aware­ness. In that case, this book is a must read forany­onewhowantstostay­on­estep ahead of the ad­ver­tis­ers, po­lit­i­cal or oth­er­wise.

Ni­cola Sater Ali­panah, M.D. is in private prac­tice in Chevy Chase, Md.

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