Monday, November 10, 2008

Book Review: Your Brain: The Missing Manual

I just finished a great book in a great series: Your Brain: The Missing Manual, by Matthew MacDonald. The O'Reilly Missing Manual series -- like their In a Nutshell series -- is a wonderful set of books that covers topics from Office to iPhoto to Vista in a fun, often funny, succinct, and useful way. It's all the stuff you ought to know (but often don't) that makes work easier and faster.

And as a hypnotist, I love fast and easy.

In Your Brain: The Missing Manual, you'll learn about the shortcuts your brain takes to make life easier for you, and how that can end up making life harder. You'll learn tips to work around the shortcuts. Modern life, with 24-hour stimulation and a bazillion cultural differences, has created an environment far more complicated than the environment the brain originated in. Sure, we're adapting. But if you know how your brain is wired, you'll adapt a bit better.

One of my favorite chapters is about how the brain processes pleasure, because the pleasure is one of the power sources that drives behavior change.

First, pleasure is, by design, short-lived. Your brain is wired to turn it off, as well as on. Why? Well, if pleasure lasted a long time, you'd get stuck in one place, soaking up wonderfulness, a sitting duck for some predator. Also, pleasure is a motivator, and motivators are more motivating if they're in short supply. The brain gets accustomed to prolonged pleasure and starts filtering it out, so the same stimulus doesn't give you the same kick.

Research shows that the first two bites of food are the most intense. After that, pleasure decreases. Your brain starts to habituate to the flavor (i.e., ignore the sensations).

As humans, we don't seek things or experiences, not really. We seek the pleasure they provide. And pleasure is hard-wired to diminish with exposure. There's always a saturation point.

But modern culture and the messages of more, better, faster try to convince us that more, better, faster, are ends in themselves. If one cookie is good, five must be better. That's working against how our brains naturally function. In fact, more, better, faster, are just levels of pleasure that in time we'll become habituated to.

Scientific American Mind (or maybe it was Psychology Today -- I'll have to go look it up) had a nice article last year about techniques for battling boredom. They involved taking control of your expectation and your focus of attention.

So the next time I find myself reaching for that third or fourth cookie, I pause and ask: "Am I really hungry? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much pleasure am I really experiencing right now?" When I remind myself of what's really going on, and how my brain is designed to make things feel less rewarding as I get used to them, it makes it easier to put the food away and wait until another time, when my pleasure will be heightened again. I can find another source of pleasure, like a Sudoku, a warm shower, a phone call to a friend, cleaning out old e-mails, petting the kitties.

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