To be more successful in life, master your mind.
Your mind is the most complex and advanced organ in the universe. It contains about 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Through experience and learning, neurons connect with other related neurons to form patterns that represent all your knowledge and capabilities. The number of possible connections of all the neurons in your brain is greater than – not just all the stars in the sky, not just all the grains of sands on all the beaches — but greater than the number of all the atoms in the entire universe. So is the capacity of your brain unlimited? Absolutely.
Neuroscience is the study of how the brain works. Neuroscience is a burgeoning field in the early 21st Century, as scientists around the world are using sensitive electronic instruments to generate colored “maps” of ongoing brain activity that look something like weather maps used by television forecasters. But like weather forecasters, neuroscientists don’t always agree on the meaning of what they observe.
Currently the part of the brain that seems to control thought is called the Central Executive, and it resides in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, located right behind your forehead. But self-awareness, the ability to observe oneself and make observations, is now believed to be produced by a diffuse network of different portions of the brain including the brainstem, thalamus and portions of the cortex.
The fact that many of your brain’s 100 billion neurons can all be firing and communicating with each other with incredible complexity, and yet on top of all this frenetic activity there is an experience of a single self, the “you” that is reading these words and thinking about them, is, well, mind-boggling.
Thinking Fast and Slow
Unfortunately our minds are not as accurate as we would like to think they are, and in fact are prone to mistakes in a wide range of circumstances. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., explains the two different types of brain activity in his best-selling book, “Thinking Fast and Slow.”
The first type, called System 1, “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 [include] choice and concentration.”
System 2 is the self-aware part of our minds. We think we are logical, making rational choices, deciding what to think and do. But most of the time System 1 is in charge of our minds and behavior. System 1 is constantly scanning the immediate environment and reacting quickly, with no conscious thinking, as in driving a car or going through your everyday routine. It’s what is often called autopilot.
It is only when System 1 encounters a problem it can’t quickly solve — “Wait a minute — something isn’t right here” — that System 2 kicks in and exerts rational effort to attempt to solve the problem. For example let’s say you are driving down the road and suddenly see tail lights lighting up as vehicles back up on the highway ahead. System 2 kicks in to begin calculating alternate actions — should I stay on this road or pull off at the next exit? Am I going to be late for my appointment? Do I have enough gas in the tank in case this takes a long time? And so on.
System 2 is also the “executive director” of your mental activity. It exerts conscious self control to resist temptation when System 1 says “let’s eat that chocolate cake” or “let’s go chat up that good-looking blonde.” One problem is that System 2 has a finite amount of energy. It can get “burned out” from long concentration such as studying for an exam or writing a term paper. At such times it is more likely to give in to temptation or make snap judgments.
If you understand what is happening when you start to feel like you are mentally drained, you can take a break and recharge with some form of glucose (sugar), the brain’s fuel that it burns far out or proportion to the rest of the body based on its size.
Kahneman tells an interesting story about Israeli judges who had to review applications for parole all day long, day after day. Judges spend on average only about six minutes reviewing each case, and only about a third of requests are approved. However, scientists studying the judges behavior found that approval rates spike up to 65% immediately after a meal when glucose is running high! Justice is not only blind, it needs food to work right!
This is only a brief introduction to how the different types of brain function can deceive us, lead us to make poor decisions, and make us feel we are in control when we are not. We highly recommend Kahneman’s book to help you better understand that “Thinking Fast and Slow” means for your own life and success.