The Predictive Process of Perception

Let’s begin with this simple, yet little known fact: our cognition guides our perception. Our five senses are nothing more than receptors for photons of light, wavelengths, air pressure, and so on.

The truth is that we see, touch, taste, smell, and hear with that magical three pound mass between our ears. The brain, in the most efficient manner possible organizes our multisensory inputs to help form our perceptions. But what if the perception process began long before we gathered input from our senses?

The perceptual process of the brain is surprisingly predictive in nature, and a lot of times our predictions are guided by our unconscious. To gain a better understanding of the predictive process of the perception we’re going to step into a college classroom.

“Our teacher was a nice!”  “Our teacher was a douche bag!”  “Wait. Don’t we have the same teacher?”

same class, different perceptions.

A college class was told they were going to have a guest speaker for their class. As an introduction a piece of paper was handed out to each student describing the guest speaker’s credentials and a brief description of his personality.

What the students didn’t know is that there were two types of papers handed out in the class. The only thing that differed on the two papers was the description of the guest speaker’s personality. On one form he was described as having a warm and open personality. On the other form he described as having a cold and stand-offish personality.

Here’s where it gets interesting. All of the students sat through the exact same lecture in the exact same room at the exact same time. At the end of the guest lecture they were given a singular form that asked them to rate the teacher’s performance and overall demeanor.  Interestingly enough the students responded to the review form accordingly to the pieces of paper they were handed prior to the lecture.

Puzzled by Perception

Understanding the complexities of perception was one of the main reasons I chose to study neuroscience in college and continue to today. I have always been amazed by situations where two people can look at the same object, or partake in the same singular interaction and derive two entirely different perceptions. I guess that is the beauty of cognitive diversity; everyone has their own lens or cognitive predisposition that guides the way they perceive the world.

As a marketer I was intrigued by another mysterious form of perception. It was called “value”.  “Value” is a ubiquitous term that is thrown around in business today that suggests something is perceived as favorable and possesses great meaning. You can place value on anything: ideas, goods, services, even people.

However, if you spend the time examining “value” you would realize that on the front end value is nothing more than imaginary perception.  Once you break down the perceptual process you will find that value is completely subjective and relative. I know this to be true because as a marketing and sales strategist it’s my job to construct and create value on a client by client basis.

Using Jungle Fruit to Explore the Perceptual Process of Value

The perceptual process of value something is actually broken down into three stages:

Part 1: Predicted Value (Expected Value)

This is where we construct a prediction of how we will perceive something. The interesting thing about this stage in the process is that it’s completely subjective and often times hypothetical.

For example, let’s pretend I just came back from the jungles of Brazil and discovered a new fruit that has never been eaten before. I am bringing it back to the states and want you to try it before anyone else and tell me if you like it.

At this point you would be asking questions to familiarize this unknown fruit. What’s it taste like? What’s it look like? What’s fruit is it similar to? Do I like the fruit it looks similar too? My point here is that you can ask a million questions to familiarize yourself with the unknown tasting fruit, but in the end you’re going to form some type of perception that you’re tied to. So let’s say you expect the fruit to taste like a pineapple, and you hate pineapple.

Part 2: Experienced Value

This is the part of the perceptual process where you actually experience something. This stage is objective and real.

you either like or disliked this fruit long before you even took a bite.

In our unknown Brazilian jungle fruit example this would be where I sit you down and make you take a bite of the fruit that I smuggled out of Brazil and past customs. Before you even bite into the fruit I can see a grimace on your face because your predictive perception is that the fruit is going to taste like something you dislike.

You continue to grimace as you begin to chew your first bite, but then after few seconds your grimace turns into a wide-eyed smile. To your amazement the unknown jungle fruit tastes like a mango. You freaking love mangos.

Part 3: Overall Awarded Value

This is the final stage in the perception process where you decide how much you value something based on your expectations and experience. Value falls on a spectrum so your awarded value varies in degrees.

In regards to jungle fruit you feel value the fruit at a 7 on a scale of 1-10. Odds are that you would have rated the fruit a 9 or a 10 if you expected the fruit to taste like a mango. You went into the tasting weary but left pleasantly surprised.
The interesting part about the process of perception is that it’s overwhelmingly front-loaded and predictive. A lot of times we seek to justify our predicted value and aren’t even aware of it. The most important part of the process should be the experience, but our experiences are often guided by our predictions. Looking back at the college guest lecture scenario you’re able to see that the paper guided the predictive value of the guest lecturer in both sets of students.

The Neuroscience of Predictive Perception

From a neurological standpoint predictive sights and experiences trigger less brain activity, and physiologically speaking it’s actually a good thing to use less energy. The brain has a finite amount of mental energy and as a result is highly efficient in its use of it. Mental tasks like critical thinking and examination require our brains to burn up a lot of this mental energy and are normally reserved for the first time we encounter a new or salient stimuli.

The brains accounts for 2% of your body's mass yet 20% of your body's energy consumption. Our brains our predictive to help conserve energy.

To increase overall efficiency our brains predict the familiar leading into expected unfamiliar situations. That is the beauty and complexity of the human brain that is not only reactive but proactive as well. Constructing expectations is actually more mentally efficient in the short term. As a result of these physiological processes in the brain people can be “primed” for perceptions and behavior, and in some cases that leads to a mismatch in cognition and reality.

The region of the brain that allows us to construct our expectations for perception is the prefrontal cortex. This is a highly evolved part of the frontal lobe of the brain that allows us [humans] to think hypothetically. In essence our prefrontal cortex allows us to perceive with out actually perceiving, and then create an expectation from that process. A lot of times we then seek to validate our expectations.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

We have all heard the old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” However, actually not judging a book by its cover is much easier said than done. We know the process of how we perceive and award value. If you know how to navigate this process you can begin to really focus on the objective experience instead of the subjective expectation.

Clear your mind before trying something new and try to shake free of what might jump into your head before you experience a stimuli or situation.  Sometimes our subjective predictions hold emotional weight. In these situations it will take more practice to detach from your expectations, but logic can override emotion and that control will serve you well in decision making.

The Subtle Importance of our Surrounding Environments

A while back I wrote an article on how people unconsciously perceive and process information about the people we’re interacting with at lightning quick speeds. I want to expound on that article and focus on how people unconsciously perceive and process our surrounding environments in very much the same way that we perceive people, and how it can effect our performance both personally and professionally. To best do this we’re going to start with a story about Musician Amy Winehouse.

Singer Amy Winehouse on one of her better days...

The Prelude to Rehab…

In the summer of 2007 Amy Winehouse was clinging to life after suffering a nearly fatal overdose in her hotel room in London, England. In order to save her life doctors gave the singer a shot of adrenaline (epinephrine) and had to pump her stomach free of the narcotics that were shutting down her system. She eventually recovered, and has continued to battle drug addiction off and on since.

Anyone who has followed popular music over the years and decades understands that drug overdoses in hotel rooms is a somewhat common occurrence. Obviously drugs like cocaine are responsible for overdosing the human body, but in recent years neuroscience has shed light on the subtle yet important link that your environment and surroundings can play in overdosing. I will attempt explain why musicians often overdose in hotel rooms by focusing on their surroundings and not so much the drugs they’re taking and the direct impact the drugs have biologically.

Human beings are highly habitual and ritualistic, and this is especially true for people who frequently use drugs. Prior to her overdose Amy Winehouse was considered a habitual drug user, and almost certainly had a routine for taking drugs. Because I do not personally know Amy I can not give you a run down of her exact routine in relation to drugs, but I can provide you with a general template for such activities.

Hypothetically, let’s say that Amy’s routine for taking cocaine was to put on her favorite music in the living room of her house, sit down on her couch, and snort lines of cocaine off her coffee table. [This ritual is unique to each drug user, but people have rituals and usually do it in a specific place.] Eventually Amy will build up a tolerance to cocaine and will have to do more to get her desired high. Most people understand that your body will begin to build up a direct metabolic tolerance to drugs and alcohol, however what was previously unknown about drug use, and routines, is that your surroundings can actually affect your biology aiding in the development of a tolerance.

Onward we go on our drug adventure.  Week after week Amy continues to snort lines of cocaine off the coffee table in the living room of her house while her favorite music plays. All the while she is taking larger and larger hits. After all this time Amy’s brain begins to do something unique and unconscious at the onset of her ritual. Her brain basically says: “Okay we’re in the living room, and I hear music. Past experience tells me cocaine is soon to follow, I just know it. The body hates drugs so I’m going to get a head start and tell the body to start fighting off the cocaine right now.” And long before Amy has even taken a single line of cocaine her body has already began fighting off the cocaine in anticipation because of the environmental cues unconsciously detected by her brain.

Flash forward to London, England. Amy is in her hotel room (a new environment) and someone offers Amy some cocaine. While they’re cutting it into lines the question comes up, “how much do you want?” and Amy asks for the amount she is used to taking back home. The end result in the new environment is an overdose and near death experience for Ms. Winehouse. You see, Amy’s brain is not used to the new environment of the hotel room, and as a result her body is caught off guard by the amount of cocaine it just absorbed.

Usually Amy’s brain would tip off her body that cocaine is soon to be on its way and to begin proactively fighting it off, but by being in a new environment her brain, and as a result, her body are blindsided by the cocaine as it overruns her system. Though the amount of cocaine Amy took is the same as she has always taken, the change in her surroundings was a determining factor in her overdose because as it weakened her tolerance. Overdoses in new locations have actually helped shed light on the unconscious processing of our environments and the resulting influences it has on our biology and behavior. This holds true for everyday people who don’t use drugs as well. I’ll explain.

Dogs, Basketball, and Your Everyday Life

If Amy Winehouse’s story reminds you of a famous experience involving dogs, food, and bells you’re onto something. Using a bell and some food Pavlov proved that our environment (and stimuli) can affect our biology and our behavior in some big ways. Amy’s drug overdose goes to show us that if you add another component to the mix, like alcohol or drugs, the equation becomes more complex to understand and as a result our surrounding environment is often overlooked and underestimated when examining a certain problem or situation; even though the key to solving the problem may purely environmental.

"Ring a bell and I'll salivate. How'd you like that" -Bare Naked Ladies

Psychology teaches us the danger of the fundamental attribution error.  This principle could be the reason we often overlook our surrounding environments. The fundamental attribution error is a false justification that people often make when assessing their peers. It’s like saying “That person is acting they way they do because that’s just who they are.” Critical thinking and understanding would suggest that there is a lot more that goes into to understanding people’s actions and behaviors. Personality traits may play a role in the one’s behavior but it’s always tandem with experiences and environment.

The best illustration of the fundamental attribution error colliding with our surroundings comes from a study about basketball. A group of people were shown video of two basketball teams practicing outside shots. The first group shot the ball very well. The second group did not shoot the ball well. Participants in the study were asked to assess why the second group did not shoot the basketball well. Overwhelmingly their response was that the second group was just not as good of shooters as the first group. Interestingly enough a closer examination of the videos shows that the second group that shot poorly shot in a noticeably poorly lit gym. Very few people, if any, noted that the surrounding environment of the shooters could have been a reason why the second group shot poorly. For those of you who have shot in a poorly lit gym or at dusk it can and does affect your shooting and depth perception.

Everyday we are presented with problems and situations that demand critical thinking and understanding. Coming up with viable solutions means that we need to take into account all of the factors that determine behavior. The basketball study showed that in most cases people examine other people at a baseline value instead of holistically. But by taking a more holistic approach to understanding that includes our surroundings and environment we can begin to provide genuine solutions that can make a difference for those in our personal and professional lives. Our brains do an outstanding job of unconsciously processing information provided by our surrounding environment. What we need to make sure is that we consciously evaluate and understand our surrounding environments in the same detail and precision that our unconscious brain does.

Face Time

Let’s begin with this brain fact: our brains unconsciously perceive people by actively scanning their mannerisms at speeds that are so fast they are undetectable to our conscious thought. None-the-less, our unconscious perceptions of people plays a vital role in governing our social interactions because more often than not these split second perceptions are spot on. For anyone who has ever muttered the phrase, “I don’t know, I just had a bad feeling about him/her.” you know exactly what I’m talking about because your unconscious processes were trying to tip you off that something, or someone, wasn’t right. Off all the things your brain unconsciously scans for facial expressions are by far the most important and telling.

This Blog Post is inspired by the book, Blink, written by Malcom Gladwell, a personal hero of mine.

This Blog Post is inspired by the book, Blink, written by Malcom Gladwell, a personal hero of mine.

What’s In a Face?

Our faces are canvases of emotion. In most situations a person doesn’t even have to speak to convey their feelings. Happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, etc. these feelings are painted all over our faces as we work through these emotions. This is a distinctly human trait. Babies, for example, when confused with a task, will look to the facial expressions of their parents for guidance. There is actually a wealth of information to suggest that facial cues played a major role in the successful development and evolution of our species, and it continues to.

Social Intelligence, Communication, and Facial Cues

Conversation and communication is 90% non-verbal.  An overwhelming majority of the human brain is dedicated to vision and perception. Taking that into account the ability to accurately detect facial cues is vital to communicating. Studies have been conducted where subjects were shown different pictures of people’s facial expressions and the subject had to guess the proper emotion. The people who scored highest in accuracy correlated with a higher level of social intelligence.

Looking at autism, this takes to the other side of the spectrum in regards to social interaction. Most children that are autistic suffer from an inability to successfully navigate social interactions and communicate because their brains have been rewired in a way that doesn’t allow them focus on facial cues. Autism is often linked with Asperger Syndrome, which is when children lack nonverbal communication skills and demonstrate limited empathy with their peers. If you can’t read a face, you can’t detect emotion, and that severely limits your ability to form an emotional bond and understanding with a peer.

The Naked Face

No two researchers have done more for the field of emotional psychology that Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman. Tomkins was among the first researchers to focus on the link between facial cues and emotion. Ekman was the researcher who traveled the world to find out if facial expressions were universal to all humans. Ekman traveled from Europe to Asia and even met with remote tribes of the Middle East and the jungles of Africa. To crudely sum up his research: Facial expressions are the same all over the world and convey universal emotional cues. When these two minds got together they did some powerful work and completely reshaped how we look at nonverbal communication with facial expressions.

The first thing they did was strip the face down to examine the muscles that allow us to make our facial expressions. The result is that we have five muscle groups in our face that allow, in combination, for over 10,000 different facial expressions. However, only about 3,000 of the potential 10,000 facial expressions are actually meaningful. The other 7,000 are the kind of faces you made as a kid when you were being silly. These works allowed Tomkins and Ekman to catalogue the range and meaning of nearly 3,000 facial expressions and link them with emotion.

Mind Reading and Facial Expressions

Today, Paul Ekman is in his late 60’s, but over the years of research he has developed a unique ability to pick up people’s facial expressions at speeds that most people would miss. These are referred to as micro expressions. The face cannot hide emotion. At some point in conversation a person’s facial cues will tip their true intentions or emotions even if their words suggest otherwise. Ekman often video records a speech and rewatches it in slow motion to help him detect a micro expression. In fact the first time he saw former president, Bill Clinton, speak in the 1992 Democratic Primaries he detected a facial cue that to him suggested that Clinton was a “bad boy” and a guy who “wants to get caught with his hand in the cookie jar and have us love him for it anyway.” [Bilnk, Gladwell 2005]. All these years later it looks like Ekman was pretty accurate.

Most of our facial expressions can be made voluntarily. If you want to make a face right now odds are you can make it. However, our facial expressions are also governed by an involuntary system that we have no control over and detecting those expressions is a gold mind for actively communicating and reading people on a deeper level. It has been said that a person’s eyes are a window to their soul. I maintain that a person’s face is a billboard for their brain. Take the time to attune to others in social interactions by examining their facial expressions; it can only benefit you by enriching your interactions.

The Difference between Fake and Real Emotions

This is a facial comparison of two smiles from the same night. As you can see the one on the right is me smiling in laughter, a genuine emotion.

This is a facial comparison of two smiles from the same night. As you can see the one on the right is me smiling in laughter, a genuine emotion.

Here is an example of how facial expressions can convey the difference between faking an emotion and actually experiencing an emotion. Here are two pictures on the same night of me smiling. The one on the left is me “fake smiling” for a picture with a friend. The other picture on the right is a picture someone took while I was in the middle of a laugh – an honest emotion for joy. Smiling is a facial expression everyone can do on a whim. If I asked you to smile right now you could do it, and you would do it by flexing your zygomatic major (cheek area muscles around the mouth). However if you were to genuinely laugh or smile you would flex your zygomatic major, but you would also tighten your orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis, which is the muscle that circles the eye.

Voluntary tightening your orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis, is almost impossible, and that is the tell sign for a genuine facial expression, or a lack there of. I circled the wrinkle next to my eye (post orbital bar area) in the photo on the right to show you that it’s only present in a genuine smile. If you look at the photo on the left you will see the skin is smooth and not wrinkled suggesting a face smile. We have two smiles here – one is fake and one is real, but either way I am still really ridiculously good looking (kidding). This is an example in still frame. Can you imagining detecting this in real time as you’re speaking with someone? Your brain can probably do it and you are not even consciously aware of it.

The Neuroscience of Stress

there are many different kinds of stress, some can actually be good for us in small doses, however on the whole stres hurts people.

there are many different kinds of stress, some can actually be good for us in small doses, however on the whole stress hurts people.

Stress, it affects every single one of us whether we like it or not. Stress can stem from a variety of things: work, play, love, family, and the list can go on for miles. Anything that we’re emotionally invested in, directly and even indirectly, has the potential to cause us stress in our lives and often does. You cannot avoid stress. Eventually it will seek you out and hunt you down. So if you can’t avoid stress, you might as well be armed to better deal with it.

Like, are we Talking Good Stress or Bad Stress?

Actually, not all stress is the same. For anyone who has ever played a sport you’re probably familiar with butterflies – and I’m not talking about the animal formerly known as the caterpillar. What I am talking about is that queasy feeling that you get in your stomach right before the big game. However, a small dose of stress, like butterflies, can go a long way. Michael Jordan openly admits to having had butterflies before big games, but that didn’t sop him from performing at amazing levels throughout his career. It may have actually helped fuel him.

A stark contrast to butterflies is aversive stress. This is a serious form of stress that is debilitating, and can significantly hinder our performance. This type of stress manifests itself differently in every single person. In fact, neuroscientists struggle to link a single set of universal physiological responses to aversive stress because every person perceives stimuli differently and therefore reacts differently. Dogs may not frighten me; however dogs may scare the hell out of one of my friends leading to a stressful response. This is the type of stress I want to focus on in this post, aversive stress.

Defining Aversive Stress

University of Washing professor and author of Brain Rules, John Medina, describes this negative form of stress as having three main attributes.  1. There must be an aroused physiological response detectable by an outside party.  2. The stressor must be perceived as aversive, meaning if you had the choice of avoid the situation all together you would. 3. The person must not feel in control of the stressor.

A Stressed Brain is a Useless Brain

In relation to stress there are two key hormones at work in our brains, adrenaline and cortisol.  At low levels cortisol helps our brains function optimally by facilitating thought and cognition. In response to a stressor soaring cortisol levels paired with a boost of adrenaline can literally paralyze the brain’s critical abilities. In this stressed state we no longer focus on the task at hand, but instead we shift our focus and attention to the stressor which results in sub par performance of our task. In addition to how we respond, prolonged stressful states can actually negatively affect the way we learn and intake information. Furthermore, stress lowers our body’s ability to fight off illness because our immune systems weaken with our hormonal surges.

 stress relief

Control Freak

Stressors that are perceived as out of our control often do the most damage to our brains and bodies. When we perceive to have little or no control over a situation the hypothetical negative outcomes we tend to focus on are knock out punch. It’s simple. Human beings don’t like the unknown. In relation to stress, human beings hate the unknown, especially when the unknown is almost certain to result in a negative outcome. Our current economy is a prime example. There is no telling how bad our economic situation may continue to get, but because the future is unknown and laced with negativity it gives many people a reason to stress.

On the flip side having too much control leaves us too emotionally (hormonally) invested in things that may not be of actual concern to us. It’s important to learn what you can and cannot control in your life and more importantly accept it; by doing so you can deflect potentially stressful situations and the biological response that accompanies them. This is easier said than done and often requires you to pull away from your emotions in a heightened state to examine your response from a logical stand point.

How we deal with stress has a lot to do with our biology. Some people are just biologically better at dealing with stress than others. In fact, men, on average tend to be better at coping with stress than women. I will note that this does not make men more capable than women, because on average women are much better at perceiving other’s emotional states. It’s a give and take of social intelligence that balances out in the end.

Stress at Work

Whether you’re an entry level employee or an executive, you’re face to face with stress every single day in the work place. Stress has a trickle down effect from the very top of our organizations that can permeate the entire culture of a company. There is and always will be constant pressure to improve and achieve our goals. Sometimes this pressure is enough to cause aversive stress, and for many it does.

Leaders and bosses should be extremely mindful of stress formation and stress reaction amongst their employees. The pressure of constant improvement coupled with negative outbursts from a boss can be disastrous for professionals. Stress, like our emotions, is contagious. If the tone of management has become increasingly negative or perceived as hostile, you can rest assure the quality of work will suffer in the long run unless changes are made.

Bosses should make a conscious effort to focus on how they choose to motivate and communicate with their staff. If you’re in the unfortunate situation of working in a job that causes you great amounts of stress my best advice is to get out. There is no telling the toll that the stress may be taking on your brain and body.

Monkeys, Ice Cream Cones, and Mirror Neurons: The Three-Way That Gave Way to Social Neuroscience

work those mirror neurons baby monkey. work it!

work those mirror neurons baby monkey. work it!

A Macaque monkey sat in his cage in the corner of a neuroscience lab in Italy during a hot summer in the mid 1990’s. The monkey looked a bit goofy wearing a helmet type device that was rigged with electrodes that were supposed to detect a neuron that fired when the monkey raised its arm. As one of the Italian researchers entered the room the monkey sat with its arm at its side. The Italian researcher, like most people during a hot summer’s day, was enjoying an ice cream cone.  He turned and inspected the monkey’s cage and noticed that nothing was going on. The monkey was just chilling with its electric rigged hockey helmet and its arms still at its sides.  What happened next was amazing. The researcher raised his ice cream cone to his mouth and the electrodes starting registering that the monkey’s neuron was firing. However, there was one problem: the monkey didn’t raise its arm.  As the researcher raised the ice cream to his mouth again the neuron fired once more. Something was up…

 

 

 

Like most great discoveries this was a complete accident. What the researcher and his monkey counterpart stumbled upon was called a “mirror neuron”. A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were itself acting. Though the monkey didn’t actually move it’s arm the neuron still fired because it mirrored or made a connection with the researcher when he raised his arm.  Currently science has only found mirror neurons in humans, primates and some birds.

 

This very discovery was the seed that would eventually grow into Social Neuroscience. Social Neuroscience functions on the principle that we are wired to connect. Mirror neurons amongst many emerging discoveries are proof our brain’s very design is to be socialable. This means that every person we encounter has an affect on our brain, and that in turn, affects our bodies. Dan Goleman, author of Social Intelligence has this to offer:

 

“To a surprising extent, then, our relationships mold not just our experience but our biology. The brain-to-brain link allows our strongest relationships to shape us on matters as benign as whether we laugh at the same jokes or as profound as which genes are (or are not) activated in T-cells, the immune system’s foot soldiers in the constant battle against invading bacteria and viruses.  That link is a double-edged sword: nourishing relationships have a beneficial impact on our health, while toxic ones can act like slow poison in our bodies.”

 

Think about it this way: Can you ever recall a time when either you or a friend was in a particularly bad relationship with a significant other? At the end of the relationship did the constant fighting and ill tempered interactions affect your biological state, as in you felt sick, tired, or even nauseated from having to deal with that person. That’s Social Neuroscience at its worst, however, it gives a stark introcuction into how social relationships and interactions can truly affect you both in the short term and the long term.

 

Social Intelligence is an advanced companion to emotional intelligence. Now that I have somewhat introduced both I can begin to give some more examples of situations and people you might encounter or have encountered and how to get the most out of those people and situations.

What’s the Deal with Emotions?

I turned on EPSN this morning and the anchors were talking about the upcoming BCS National Champtionship Game and one anchor, Kirk Herbstreet, was talking about the role emotion will play in the game and how it could be the difference for victory.  Watch any sports show regarding a big game and the importance of emotion always comes up. This holds true far beyond the realm of sports. Emotions play a vital role in our day to day actions and often times they play a much larger role than we give them credit for.

As humans we are emotional beings.  With each living moment we wade in a sea of emotion. Sometimes the waters are calm, sometimes the waters toss about, and every so often the waters rise up like a tsunami wave and overtake you. However, one thing remains: there will always be water – there will always be emotion. I submit that most people can feel their emotions, but very few actually understand them, and even fewer understand the emotions of others. In most cases we cannot stop ourselves from feeling emotions, they just come. It’s what a person does once they’ve felt an emotion that can make all the difference.

In my last post I introduced the three very general parts of the brain: The old brain, the middle brain, and the new brain. These brains, respectively, were responsible for making decisions, emotion, and thought. Any time we are confronted with a stimuli these three brains work in concert to lead us to an action. The flow of this interaction often looks like this:

 Emotion –> Thought –> Action

Once you’ve felt  and acknowledge the emotion you’re feeling it is crucial that you take time to think. Most people fail to do this, and it can be the source of difficulties in their social interactions. You might think about why did I feel that emotion? What action should I take? How will my potential reaction affect me, how will it affect others? The truth is there are a million different questions you can ask yourself in relation to any given scenario, all that matters is that you think. Once you’ve thought and used the input of your emotions you can make a decision as to what you action may be. Pretty easy huh? This is a baby step into a much larger world.

When Your Emotions Get the Best of You…

I walked out of lunch at one of my favorite sushi restaurants and noticed a man holding package and ringing the doorbell to the UPS Store that was located next door. He was about 40 and looked like any suburban father would. He continued ringing the bell until it was quite clear that no one was going to answer. The UPS Store was closed and accidently left their “open” sign lit in the window. Then something happened. He slapped the side of the package he was holding and cursed out loud. I decided to slow my pace as I walked and watch this scene play out. Clearly this guy was feeling the emotion of anger, I mean he was really cheesed, and it was because he couldn’t mail his package. My guess he was so angry because it was important that it get mailed that day. I’ll never know, I was in no position to ask him, he might choke me.

He started his car and hit his steering wheel cursing up a storm, he was still very angry. The emotional flood gates were open. He then began reving up his engine. It was clear to me at this point his emotions were in control of his actions. He backed up really fast and began speeding down the street still cursing. He failed to notice that a woman was backing her car out of her parking spot down the way. Blinded by his emotions he realized this too late, slammed his breaks, and rear-ended her car. Luckily it wasn’t that bad. However he got out and started screaming at the lady. I felt privledged and somewhat sad to watch this entire situation play out. I noticed one thing though, as the emotions started to rush in he failed to think and figure out what action would be best to take give the changing circumstances of his situation. He went right from emotion to action, skipping thought, and he is paying for it now (more than likely in the form of his insurance).

I’ll end with this. Oprah said this to Liz Lemon on an episode of 30 Rock, “We’re not always in control of the emotions we feel, but we are always in control of the actions we can take.”

Three Brains are Better than One

To begin to understand how the human brain processes information during our daily interactions you have to break down the human brain so it’s nice and simple to understand.  I remember the first time I saw an actual human brain,  and the thing I remember most is that it looked nothing like the clean images and drawings from the text books. It actually looked like a grayish mess, but once we got to slicing and dicing it began to make sense of what was what. Our lesson today is nowhere near as complex, hopefully it’s more intriguing.

breaking down the brain

breaking down the brain

The Reptilian Brain

The reptilian brain is a very primitive organ. It’s called the reptilian brain because it has been around for over 450 million years and is actually still present in reptiles today. This is the first part of your brain to develop. The reptilian brain or the “old brain” is responsible for you unconscious processes. It controls things like heartbeat and breathing. Think about it, have you ever had to focus to make your heart beat, or to make yourself breath (assuming you’re not having a panic attack). Of course not, these things just happen and that’s thanks to your old brain. It’s been said that the old brain is primarily concerned with your survival. The most recent research has shown that the old brain plays a major roll decision making. The old brain actually decides “yes” or “no” in response to a situation or stimuli. Pretty neat stuff huh? We’ll expand more on the old brain at a later time.

The Middle Brain

Through human evolution we developed a brain on top of our first brain. This brain, the middle brain, is a little more complex than the first brain. From a social neuroscience perspective the middle brain is primarily concerned with emotional processing. Emotions are vital to understanding and communicating in social interactions and play a crucial role in our behaviors and actions.

The New Brain

The new brain is what makes our species so unique. No other animal has a brain like ours and that’s because of our new brain, also commonly referred to as the neo cortex. This brain is responsible for higher level thinking. It allows us to think in abstract and hypothetically as well as perform rational thought. Studies have shown that this part of the brain continues to grow and develop until the age of 24. This is what separates us from other animals and makes humans so unique.

Three Brains Become One

So lets tie this all together. The reptilian brain decides, the middle brain processes emotions, and the new brain thinks. When confronted with a stimuli all of these processes from your three brains work in concert to achieve an end result.  This is the process that your brain works when confronted with almost any situation. Of course you’re largely unaware of what’s going on, but social neuroscience aims to give you the understanding of how you perceive and communicate. The knowledge of the social perception process can make a big difference in understanding your actions and emotions. Now that we’ve laid something of a base I hope we can begin to really explore this dynamic process through some example interactions.

If this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about I recomend picking up the book NEUROMARKETING written by Patrick Revoise & Christopher Morin. This book looks at how the brain makes decisions and the best way to communicate to the old brain. It’s a terrific read and much of this post was inspired by the book’s breakdown of the brain. Check out more at:http://www.salesbrain.net/users/folder.asp?FolderID=5622&gclid=CNzi8O-M6pcCFRlRagodkEOCDA Continue reading