15 Feb

Your Brain as a Group of Warring Tribes

Banner - rowersOnce upon a time in the dark ages of economic history, the human being was a rational agent.

We evaluated what we want, and found the cheapest way to get it. This, of course, had nothing to do with how humans act in reality. Instead, there came the much simplified theory of behavioral rewards.

It said that the brain creates neural pathways, using dopamine to reinforce or suppress them based on the rewards it’s received. This, too, proved wrong.

First of all, the brain releases dopamine not when it receives a reward but when it expects a reward. Secondly, that one set of neural pathways that your thoughts barrel down like a truck on the highway simply doesn’t exist.

Instead, there are neural networks, connections between neurons that fire together that bring about a certain action. But, unlike in the behavioral theory, it’s never a single network that is active. Many different networks are active at the same time, all fighting to be the one to control your actions, enlisting different parts of the brain, and different parts of the body, using feedback loops to support their position.

Your brain isn’t like a prime minister. It’s more like a rowdy parliament in one of those countries where fistfights in the legislative branch are common.

Your decisions can hinge on tiny changes in who is in charge in your brain at the moment. And if you think that this makes your actions and decision making quite random, you are right. At least when we look at them from the outside.

Because there is a way to remove that randomness, and that way is to build good habits.

The brain is an energy saving machine. It does what requires the least amount of energy. Not energy for the body, though. The brain is a very selfish organ. The brain does what requires the least amount of energy for the brain. The least amount of thought. Anything the brain can shift to automatic actions, it will shift to automatic actions. Those are the networks that are the fastest. And those are the networks will prevail in the mind wars the most often.

They are your habit networks.

Something that you have done, dozens or hundreds or thousands of times before, is much more energy efficient than a network that has to come up with new solutions all the time.

Building habits is like giving certain of your brain networks weapons. It increases the likelihood that they will win your internal civil war. By practicing good habits, by making yourself to what will help you in the long run, you train your brain to choose that network more often. And that, after all, is what we are aiming for.

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