Brain Bugs

I would be way over-simplifying things to suggest that the internet works like the human brain – with lots of nodes and networks connected to each other, linking and relating information in constantly changing, ever-evolving ways.  I am neither an expert in the development of the web nor a brain scientist, so I won’t event try to explain either concept in greater detail. 

What I do know, however, is that our brains function differently now than they did in the past - and one of the big reasons is because technology, and the internet, have become critical to the functioning of our society and central to our everyday lives.  I write about this - and what it means for business, education, marketing and communications, and more (especially in the context of serious issues) in my new book, Shift & Reset.

Earlier this week Dean Buonomano, a neuroscientist and the author of Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Bugs Shape Our Lives, was interviewed on Fresh Air.  In his book, Buonomano explains how and why our brains sometimes fail us. On the show, he tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies that the brain’s weaknesses and strengths have evolved over thousands of years, based on what our ancestors needed — and didn’t need — to survive. 

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

DAVIES: So let’s talk a little bit about how that pattern of association and connection affects our behavior. I mean, you have some interesting experiments in the book that demonstrate this.

BUONOMANO: So can I give an example first in memory? So can I ask three questions?


BUONOMANO: So the three questions are - they’re not trick questions. I’m just going to ask two of the questions, and just go ahead and answer, and the third one is a free association. You’re just going to answer the first thing that pops into your head.

And the first question is: In what continent is Kenya?

DAVIES: Africa.

BUONOMANO: What are the two opposing colors in the game of chess?

DAVIES: Black and white - I almost said red and white. That was - I’m a checkers guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BUONOMANO: Fair enough. Think of any animal.

DAVIES: A zebra.

BUONOMANO: So here, many people will think of zebra. Of course not everybody will think of zebra, but by priming your memory towards Africa and black and white, I increased the likelihood people will think of zebra. So that’s because nodes, these groups of neurons representing Africa and black and white, talk to each other. They contaminate each other’s activity.

And as you said, this goes beyond what we’re thinking. And it turns out that this can also affect our behavior. And because there’s always cross-talk going on in the brain. And one of the examples from some investigators who were at NYU at the time, they performed a study in which they asked the subjects to do word puzzles, to make sentences with a lot of words that were biased towards being very polite or nice or kind and another group that used words that were biased towards being rude or impolite, impatient and so forth.

And the subjects in the study thought that that was the point of the study. After they finished this task, they were told to go over and talk to one of the assistants who was pretending to be on the phone. And the real measure was how long they waited before they interrupted the ongoing phone conversation.

And it turns out that the people who did word puzzles that were more heavily populated with rude words actually waited less to interrupt the ongoing conversation than those who were doing word puzzles with polite words. So this is sort of an example of behavioral priming in which the words have the ability sometimes to influence our thoughts.

And even our memories are somehow linked to our emotions and to our actions and our behaviors. The brain, unlike a computer, is not compartmentalized. Everything is talking to everything else.

Many other studies shared the similar findings in that if I asked people - if people are asked to think about the future, it turns out they lean imperceptibly forward a bit. If they’re asked to think about the past, they lean imperceptibly backwards a bit because of the crosstalk that neurons provide.

Clearly, the more we understand about how the brain works, the greater the opportunity we have to influence the way people think and behave (in good and bad ways).  One of the most interesting examples of this is the concept of priming (and I talked about priming in Shift & Reset).