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