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Dean Burnett

The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head Is Really Up To

The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head Is Really Up To

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“Dedicated to every human with a brain. It’s not an easy thing to put up with, so well done.”

Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist who also dabbles in stand-up comedy and writes a popular science blog ‘Brain Flapping’ for the Guardian, has written a very accessible and entertaining book on the weird and peculiar processes in the brain that influence everything we say, do and experience.

Our sense of self and all that goes with it – memory, language, emotion, perception and so on – is supported by processes in our brain. Everything you are is a feature of your brain, and much of what your brain does is dedicated to making you look and feel as good as possible: the brain is largely egotistical.

The brain is primed to think up potential threats and makes us constantly afraid. The brain’s love of patterns and hatred of randomness leads many people to bizarre beliefs, superstition and conspiracy theories.
To the brain, bad things are typically more potent than good things, and criticism typically carries more weight than praise; praise is just telling us what we already know.

Less intelligent people usually have illogical self-confidence, and the more confident a person is, the more convincing he is and the more others tend to trust and believe the claims he makes. Apparently it’s human nature that we pay more attention to confident clowns than to insecure intellectuals, who can be perceived as a threat by our egotistical brain.

The metaphorical devil and angel on your shoulder are actually lodged in your head. The regions associated with producing motivation and responsive behaviour are present in both brain hemispheres, but do different things on each side; in the right hemisphere they produce negative, avoidance or withdrawal reactions to unpleasant things, and in the left hemisphere they produce positive, active, approach behaviour.
Anger is seen as negative and harmful, but it turns out that anger is sometimes useful, because it lowers cortisol, and thus reduces the potential harm caused by stress. Studies have shown that anger causes raised activity in the motivational system in the left hemisphere, potentially prompting someone to deal with a stress-causing threat, thus lowering cortisol further.
The right side’s influence doesn’t lead to anything being done about apparent threats, so they persist, causing anxiety and stress.
So it’s fine to be angry, just don’t get angry at me! Just buy a punching bag or something.

Carefully choose your friends and the group you want to belong to, because other people deeply impact our thought processes; the brain prefers to use other people as a go-to reference for information and for determining our actions in uncertain scenarios. You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends.
Under certain conditions, a group can actually suppress our individuality ; groupthink can take precedence over logical or reasonable decisions and a lot of extreme or worrying opinions concerning controversial subjects could be explained by group polarisation. No individual who’s part of a group is immune to this; our brain’s desire for group harmony is powerful.
People derive much of their identity from the groups they belong to ; in certain conditions this can seriously alter our behaviour, and our brain can make us hostile to those who threaten our group or undermine the group uniformity.

We care what other people think of us at a neurological level, and will go to great lengths to make them like us.
All of which makes me conclude that in order to avoid being egotistical, to become carefree and confident, and to maintain your individuality, just don’t use your brain.
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