Your Social Brain and Your Happiness

It’s always nice when one of the most respected institutions in the world provides some research that’s right up your alley.

One of the most astounding facts neuroscience researchers have discovered in the past 20 years is that our brains are far more social than originally thought. Our brains are actually wired to connect with each other, like neural wifis. This ability to connect with each other has been and will always continue to be beneficial to human success and well being.

It’s no coincidence social participation can increase a person’s happiness. Over thousands, even millions of years, humans and our apelike ancestors that contributed to our evolution survived and thrived because of our intelligence and high level social behavior.

Today, mobile technology and social media monopolize our mental energy. Although our tools provide us with a technological advantage, we must avoid falling into a social deficit. Children, teens, adults, and professionals must place a premium on quality, in-person social interactions that are free from technological distractions. These quality, in-person social interactions will provide our brains the neural pathways for us benefit and get a sense of happiness from being a social participant.

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.

Vision, Value and Love Handles

It is a New Year’s tradition that people make resolutions. The idea of a resolution itself is a refreshing concept. You are consciously making a decision to better your life in some form or way. Far and away the most common resolution is to lose weight. Unfortunately, many people will fail to actualize this goal because they have poorly planned or designed their strategy for obtaining their goal.

I mentioned earlier that a resolution is a conscious decision. However, much of our actions are actually at the mercy of our unconscious.  It doesn’t matter if we’re making a moral decision or a financial decision; our behaviors are often guided by our unconscious perceptions that are processed in our brains. One sense above all holds more weight than any other, and that is our vision.

In this post I want to shed light on how our visual sense guides our decisions in everyday life, and how sometimes our vision can lead us astray from our goals -like losing weight and even saving money. I’ll even offer solutions as to how you can neurologically design a better plan for accomplishing your goals this New Year.

We don’t See with our Eyes, We See with our Brains

Our eyes are responsible for the gathering of photons and light, but all that information comes together in our brains. We don’t see with our eyes, we see with our brains. Vision is our most dominant sense. Visual processes in the human brain actually account for half of our brain’s resources. Although we are highly specialized in visual perception we can still make mistakes.

Shockingly, these tables are the exact same length. Truth.

Let’s look at the table example above. It would appear that the table on the left is longer than the table on the right, but guess what, it’s not. They are equal length. The funny thing is that even after I tell you that this is an illusion it’s impossible for you visually perceive the tables as equal size. Its visual illusions like this that can lead us to make poor decisions in our everyday lives.

Bigger Plates = Bigger Waste Lines

While growing up many of us were scolded for not clearing our plates while eating dinner – some of us were even guilt tripped to a far away land where children were starving. This habit of clearing our plates is heavily dominated by our visual perception, and wrongfully so. Today, many consumers equate value to the amount of food you’re given for the money you paid for the meal. I call this the “super size” conundrum, because it’s a great to get the most bang for your buck, but does your stomach really need all that food? The answer is no. Your stomach does not need all that food.

Nutritionists long ago proved that a little bit of food will go a long way. One study suggested that a burrito could be the size of a bar of Dove soap while still being able to fulfill nutritional needs. So why do most of us consume “burritos as big as our heads” in their entirety? There are two reasons. 1. Eating is enjoyable and 2. For the stomach to communicate that it’s full to the brain takes about 15 minutes, and as a result while eating we’re guided more by our vision than by actual physiological signals. This is especially true for anyone who has eaten so much they gave themselves a stomach ache.

In nutritional study conducted in 2001, those who ate blindfolded ate 22% less food.

In 2001 Dr. Yvonne Linne conducted a study to see how much people would eat if they couldn’t see their plates. The participants were split into two groups and given equal plates of delicious food. Group one was instructed to eat until they were full. Group two was given the same instructions except group two was blindfolded. The end result was that group without vision, group two, consumed 22% less food than group one. Eating less food was achieved because group two had to rely on their own internal physiological cues for being full over the visual illusion of “clearing the plate” that guided group one.

Perception Solution: Smaller and Slower is Better

Unfortunately eating while blindfolded is frowned upon in public. So what can you do to reduce your food intake to a reasonable yet still healthy amount? It’s easy. Use smaller plates and glasses. If vision is still going to guide how much we eat just have the plate size work in your favor. It may seem like a big reduction at first but over time your stomach will adjust to a more reasonable serving of food. The same also applies for beverages as well. 8 ounces is a perfect serving size for a drink, but in a world 64oz Big Gulps (4 lbs of liquid!), 8 ounces seems like drop of water when it’s really not.

On the left you have a 12 oz bottle of soda, and on the right you have today's more common 20oz bottle of soda. The 20oz bottle of soda was actually devleoped with the idea in mind that people would drink less soda because of it's size. Sadly people didn't drink less soda, they just chugged 20 oz and got fatter. The extra 8oz of soda could acually account for 10% of your daily caloric intake.

Eating slowly will also help because you need time for your stomach to say “hey brain, stop eating. I’m full.” We live in a fast paced culture and eating slowly may not make a whole lot of sense, but it’s important to eat a slow pace. Just the other day I had to grab lunch on the go. I chose to eat a small Spicy Chicken value meal from Wendy’s (my favorite). Using the stopwatch function on my phone I timed myself to see how long it took me to eat my entire meal. My time: 4:56. Way too fast. When I can, I distract myself at lunch while reading a book, a newspaper, or a friend’s blog to stretch the time while I’m eating. I also take deep breaths between going back for more food and I try to attune to my body to pick up on the “I’m full signal”.

To Hell in a Shopping Cart

Interestingly enough our visual perception also plays a big role in how much we can spend at a grocery store. Just like how we base how much we eat off our plate size, we can get sucked into the same trap with shopping carts. One such study conducted by Martin Lindstrom compared two groups of shoppers. Group one shopped using shopping carts and group two shopped using hand baskets. The end result was that the shopping cart group, group one, purchased 31% more than the hand basket group.

Whether we’re clearing a plate of filling a shopping cart our unconscious vision plays a pretty unique role guiding our behavior. Here are some tips that might help you save money: 1. Don’t shop hungry 2. Use a hand basket instead of a shopping cart 3. Make a list 4. Break your shopping routine – do this by switching up the time of day you shop, where you park, and even what door you enter. Breaking your usual unconscious rhythm while performing a common task will actually help you focus on the subtitles of the task at hand.

Happy New Year, and best of luck to you on those resolutions!