Change the World with Your Brain in 10 Steps

A few people have asked me why in the world I’ve been studying Neuroscience, since I’m not going to become a doctor or work with patients with brain disorders.
Valid point!

Well, I’ve always tried to understand people from their perspective, and I was certain that learning more about how my brain works would be gratifying in the end.

So I came up with a list of 10 things to do/not do to help make the world a better place based on what I’ve learned from Medical and Cognitive Neuroscience so far – there’s always so much to learn.
Things are actually more complex than what I explain here but I tried to make it simpler to understand. The conclusions are totally mine though – so, don’t blame any researchers or authors.

1 – Smile more frequently, even when it’s hard to do so,
because feelings arise through the perception of the state of our body. We all know that feeling good about something makes us smile, but did you know that smiling also makes us feel good?

If I try to smile more often, I am retaining that state in my memory for a little while, so I will unconsciously do the next things feeling good. Even though a genuine smile and a forced smile are activated by different areas of the brain, the action of smiling will be reinterpreted by your brain as a consequence of external experience which will then be transformed to emotion.

Thus, when feeling bad, just try to smile more and notice the difference.

2 – Smile more to affect others,
because that will activate other people’s mirror neurons.

When we see others waving, or dancing, or doing any motor activity, some neurons in our brain called mirror neurons are activated, trying to reproduce the same movements performed by another person.

You may wonder why you automatically raise your eyebrows when someone is giving a speech and they raise their eyebrows, or why a baby tries to reproduce your expressions or movements. Those are the mirror neurons in action.

Therefore, if I smile more, others will unconsciously smile, or at least activate their mirror neurons to do so, and maybe that will even retain that state in their memories, making them feel good – like said on point 1.

3 – Avoid negative people,
because negative comments will be stored in my brain even if I don’t want to, even if I consciously try to ignore them.

My brain will continue to work with that information in the background for a long time after I heard those bad comments. So, even if I consciously try to be a good person, my unconscious brain, which does not know the difference between good and bad, will try to learn from the information it acquired and accommodate it along the rest of my knowledge.

4 – Give more respect to teenagers and young adults,
because they’re forming their view of the world, and I am responsible for helping their learning.

Our brain keeps developing after our birth. People in their teens or early 20’s are still developing the last area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for social interaction, norms, and decision making.

When they do “crazy” things, it’s not because they are not “as responsible as I always was.” Their brains are trying to know how far they can go to adapt to the world, transform and be transformed by it.

I don’t want to shut down brilliant minds by saying “No, you cannot do this” or “No, this is impossible.” I want to actually learn from them how far I could have gone myself and use that to transform my actions and readapt to the world, and I also want to remind myself to be an example, teaching through my own actions. Remember the mirror neurons?

5 – Stop considering my past and the previous generation always better then the current one,
because memories are flawed!

Memories, specially long-term declarative episodic memories (memories of events you can consciously recall), are stored throughout the brain in the same areas that are activated when the experience actually happened. However, every time I recall that memory I bring it to consciousness, remember the not-so-great details from the past, then it gets mixed with the experience I am having at the present moment, and finally it is stored again but now with different details.

The next time I try to recall that event, it will have those modified details and some other missing facts. My brain will try to fill in those missing gaps with a reasonable story and then will store it once again mixed with my present experience.

Thus, even if my past was not as great as it really was, I will always recall it as perfect, nostalgic, and ignore the fact that it actually is the result of the experiences of every time I recalled such a memory – besides the fact that in many occasions a memory is also unconsciously triggered by other memories and may be altered even without my knowing it.

Everyone will always say that things used to be better before!
However, I want to have a better sense of reality to always enjoy and appreciate the present. You should do the same, it’s really worth it.

6 – Listen more so I can learn about the world from others,
because my brain does not know by default what is true or false, or what exists or not.

I’m born with a little box called brain, with little to no knowledge of the world other than the experiences I acquired throughout my mom’s pregnancy.
All I hear, see, touch, smell, taste, sense, and learn is becoming “The World” to my brain. My brain cannot comprehend the world outside of the synaptic connections it has made. Daniel Kahneman calls this phenomenon WYSIATI: What You See Is All There Is.

Thus, when I don’t listen, I prevent my brain from integrating different experiences and perspectives with my stored memories and my concept of world. When I don’t really listen, even if I know 95% of what is being said already, my brain will know how to capture the other 5% to form new synapses with that and I lose a great opportunity of expanding knowledge and increasing creativity – a topic for another post.

The human battle for who has more knowledge, you or me, is nonsense! Of course you know better about the world than me, because you know everything about “your” world. I know everything about mine.

7 – Not judge other religions or churches,
because our brains look for stories to fill in the gaps and we’ll always have an interpretation better than the others have – creating reasonable stories is what our left brain does very well.

Points 5 and 6 summarize the concept of filling the gaps with reasonable stories, and about believing that the knowledge we have is everything that exists.

It is very easy to consider myself having better knowledge, interpretation, history, and experiences than anyone else from any other religion or church even without listening to them or trying to understand them, because my brain tells me I actually don’t need it: “I already have the information I need to adapt to the world and survive”, especially if I’m in my late 20’s or older, when my brain’s prefrontal cortex stopped developing. That’s why we become know-it-all’s and stubborn after our 30’s. There is nothing beyond what I know.

Also, my brain will take care of filling the gaps of things I don’t know, creating stories I can use to argue about my beliefs. If something in history or in the story I was told is not coherent, don’t worry, I will unconsciously find ways for it to make sense, even if it involves making up scientific, logical, or archeological stories.

8 – Stop watching movies when I see they use “unintended” racism or things like Islamophobia, homophobia, etc.,
because, again, my brain does not know that isn’t true.

When racism in a story is intended, I consciously tell my brain this is a bad thing so it sets the goal for a better judgement and knows how to classify something as false.
But when a movie uses a stereotype without making it clear, such as a Muslim as the bad guy or a black guy as a criminal, even if that depicts an “isolated case”, my brain will interpret that as common and work on that information behind the scenes. The more I watch, the more common it becomes, and I don’t want to unconsciously believe that Muslims are terrorists, or that there is any bad in African-Americans.

Using “Stereotypes” is a way our brains deal with danger and help us survive. If good things happened often to you when you ate green apples, the safer your brain will consider such a fruit, but if you were bitten by a spider and that was bad, chances are that you will avoid any type of spider going forward.

However, the negative thing about this brain’s feature is that I don’t need to have a specific experience to make my brain believe something is true or false. Repetition of a fact is enough.

If I hear too many times that people are dying of spider bites, that will become true to me easily, and that will trigger a stereotype.
Thus, if you repeat over and over that Brazilians are all ignorant people for example, people will believe just because of the repetition, and believing it will help create the stereotype in people’s brains which in turn makes people believe even more and talk about that over and over, propagating such stereotype through more repetition. Complex, I know.

So the best I can do is force myself to stop watching that movie in the middle.

9 – Appreciate diversity more,
because our brains are totally and beautifully unique.

Our brains are formed by nature (DNA), nurture (experiences), and self-organization (the way cells are organized). A small single difference can cause a huge impact in the way our brains work and how we interpret the world.

Our brains differ by anatomy, number of synapses, excess or lack of hormones or neurotransmitters, small and invisible lesions, etc. Less dopamine may affect the way we move and think, issues in the left hemisphere can cause depression, we may also be affected by blood pressure, or have different sense of smell, lack of attention, see different colors, interpret sounds differently, have distinct sensory experience due to the way the spinal cord was formed, etc, etc.

Thus, it’s impossible to demand that everyone be and think like me! Appreciate our diversity.

10 – Appreciate the goodness in people and things more often,
because we tend to see bad things more frequently than good things.

When a person is good to me, my brain consider them as harmless and treat their actions as expected behavior. All the many good actions that this person takes will go unnoticed to me, sometimes even discarded by my memory because they are not relevant to be stored anymore, since that person is “safe”. But if their behavior one day goes against that expectation, it breaks the “norms” and triggers a surprise, calling my brain’s attention. That surprise is stored as a “threat.” No wonder why a simple bad thing can overwrite many other good things they have done to me.

“Availability Bias” is the fact that our brains judge something to be true or not due to how easily it can find information about it.
If my brain cannot easily find many good events, that may be interpreted by it as “that person is therefore not good.”

Tricky, but I want to use that knowledge consciously, and overwrite the bad things I am surprised about with the good in people.

The prophet Jeremiah once wisely said that “the heart is deceitful above all things.”, and by “heart” there he meant “mind”.

Thiago “Jacob” Sindra


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