The brain is the most complex organ in our body, and no two brains are alike. Yet research can lean towards what our brains all have in common, as opposed to what sets them apart.
“When I started studying the brain, I was really frustrated by the one-size-fits-all approach to studying the mind/brain relationship” says University of Washington psychology professor Chantel Prat. “It also happens with other human behavioral sciences. We take groups of people, and we say, ‘This is how people work.’ But that’s far from the whole story, right?
“The job of the brain is to make you the individual that you are. Everything we identify with on the inside, as our own, is the manifestation of this organ. What I want people to understand is that different doesn’t always mean better or worse.”
In her approachable new book ‘The Neuroscience of You: How Every Brain is Different and How to Understand Yours’, Prat focuses on what makes each of our brains unique, and how understanding our own so-called strengths and weaknesses can help set us up for success in life. Here she offers five tips as a starting point for getting to know our brains a little better.
Appreciate your strengths, and know your weaknesses are there for a reason
Firstly, we should just develop a better appreciation for all the things the brain does that we take for granted. We get really focused on the things that we would like our brains to do better. But your brain might have a really good reason for working like it does. In the beginning of the book, I talk about the London taxi drivers, and how memorizing tons and tons of streets grew the part of their brain that helped them remember spatial maps. But it actually also shrunk the part right in front of that, and made it harder for them to remember lists of words, and new images, and things like this. So you might grow the brain to make it better at something, but there may be a cost to that. The perceived weaknesses in your brain are probably there for a reason.
Know that your brain is highly adaptive
From birth, even from in utero, your brain is sampling the sights, sounds, and smells and taking statistics. It’s learning from these experiences what is likely to be happening in your environment, and what the best action is likely to be. And this is why instead of being born with a lot of instincts, like some animals, humans are successful in tons of different environments because your brain is adapting from day one. Human babies are born totally helpless, but they’re being shaped by the environment they are in. So every brain is different because they’ve been shaped by a different lifetime of experiences.
Consider if you are a chooser or avoider
Even if people have the same experience, people learn different things about their outcome. One of the ways that we differ from most artificial intelligence systems is that we have two paths by which we learn about the outcomes of our actions. When something happens and the outcome is better than expected, our brain releases dopamine, and that strengthens the connections between the context that you’re in and the series of actions you took, to get you to that surprisingly good thing. But when things work out worse than expected, when you’re disappointed, there’s another path in your brain that also works on dopamine, and weakens the connections between that context and the action you chose. So some people are what we call choosers, or carrot learners. They have a stronger path that strengthens the link between a context and a good action you chose. This leads to people who quickly settle on the best choices. But people who are avoiders show the reverse pattern of behavior. They’re excellent at making decisions in cases of the lesser of two evils, and making the choice that is least bad. And we need both choosers and avoiders in this world!
Understand the left and right brain
We tend to talk about being a ‘left brain’ or a ‘right brain’ person when we’re really talking about being analytical or creative, which is not exactly what our two hemispheres do. But how lopsided we are between these two sides is one of the ways how the brain differs. In the book, there are a bunch of different exercises that let you figure out how distributed the motor and sensory skills are in the two sides of your brain. One of the theories about how the two hemispheres of our brains differ is that this shift towards the leftward dominance for things like language came at the cost of shrinking certain parts of the right hemisphere, which had really important jobs like spatial navigation that were critical for our success before we had Google Maps and so forth.
Treat your brain with care
There are easy things we can do to balance our neurochemistry. Some of the chemicals our brain needs rely on nutrients we need to be ingesting, so nutrition is important. And breathing exercises are a really powerful and easy trick to help us counteract stress. Just five minutes of breathing exercises can reduce cortisol levels. And a massage can increase dopamine and serotonin and decrease stress.