Brain Lessons

Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, and others on how learning about their brains changed the way they live.

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Psychoanalysis may not be in vogue right now, but most of us still believe in one of Freud’s central insights: The better we understand our minds, the happier and healthier we’ll be. What does that mean for the folks who know more about their brains than anyone else in the world? Slate asked a group of eminent writers and researchers in the field of neuroscience to describe how their knowledge about the brain has affected the way they lead their daily lives.

Patricia Churchland, author of Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the  Mind-Brain.
How has understanding neuroscience changed my daily life? In a thousand different ways. I can see how many differences in capacities and temperament and behavior are rooted in basic brain differences; that understanding makes me less judgmental, more moderate, and motivated to acquire yet more knowledge. At the same time, I can understand my own failings and achievements with similar moderation and tolerance.

Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness.
In some ways the brain is remarkably robust. Phineas Gage fell down when a tamping iron passed through his head and blew out large chunks of several lobes. But then he got up, and—despite a few personality quirks—lived happily ever after. Some people have an entire hemisphere of their brains surgically removed and continue to function relatively normally. And yet, in other ways, the brain is remarkably fragile: Minute changes in patterns of neurotransmission can turn a normal person into a raving lunatic, as anyone who has ever swallowed a mere 1,000 micrograms of LSD can attest. Because it is so difficult to know whether a particular brain change will be invisible or catastrophic, I try to change mine as little as possible.

Alison Gopnik, co-author of The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn.
Consciousness, attention, and brain plasticity all seem to be linked. And attention and plasticity are much more widely distributed in young animals—including human babies—than older ones. For grown-ups, consciousness is like a spotlight; for babies it’s like a lantern. I have always loved the childlike moments, however brief, when our minds seem to open to the entire world around us—the experience celebrated by Romantic poets and Zen sages alike. The neuroscience makes me think that these moments aren’t just a passing thrill. Cultivating this childlike “lantern consciousness,” this broad focus, might help make us almost as good as babies at changing our brains. 

Joshua Greene, author of a forthcoming book on moral decision-making.
My knowledge of neuroscientific details—knowing which parts of the brain do what—has no effect on my life outside the lab. But my immersion in these details has forced me to appreciate in a deep way the fact that we humans are physical beings all the way down.  To be a physical object is to be a collection of parts rather than a unified entity with one point of view and one will. (Like Whitman said, we contain multitudes.) Knowing this helps me tolerate the contradictions in myself and others: Am I happy? Did she do that intentionally? Can people change? These questions never have single answers because we’re not single things.

Charles Gross, author of Brain, Vision, Memory: Tales in the History of Neuroscience.
We now know that both physical exercise and mental exercise is good for maintaining healthy brain function, especially in aging people like me. I probably don’t do more of each than I would have without this knowledge, but I do feel better about the amount I do.

Marc Hauser, author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed a Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.
I wish I could answer this question by saying that my research on the neural mechanisms of morality has made me more virtuous, fueled a greater desire to donate to charities, or generated confidence that the neurosciences will soon make us more respectful of others.  But I can’t.  None of it is true, at least not yet. What we are discovering is that our moral sense is a powerful biasing agent, guiding us toward ethical verdicts that aren’t always just. My hope is to uncover these biases so that we can recognize them when they covertly attack. And in retirement, I hope to leave academia to work in war-torn areas, teach, distribute medicines and food supplies, and leave my selfish genes behind. Perhaps this will change my brain!

Christof Koch, author of The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach.
My empirical studies into the neurobiology of consciousness have convinced me that many species share the sights and sounds of life with us humans. Why? First, except for size, there are no large-scale, dramatic differences between the brains of most mammals (including humans). Second, when people experience pain and distress, they contour their face, moan, cry, squirm, and try to avoid anything that would trigger a reoccurrence of the pain. Many animals do the same. Likewise for the physiological signals that attend pain—like changes in blood pressure, dilated pupils, sweating, and an increased heart rate. Because it is likely that mammals can consciously experience the pains and pleasure of life, we should not be eating their flesh.

It was difficult for me to follow this growing realization with action—the taste of meat is deeply ingrained! The death of my beloved companion Nosy a few years ago provided the final impulse to make me live in accordance with my belief. I am now an ovo-lacto vegetarian.

Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life.
One of the things I’ve learned about the brain is that anxiety and stress breed anxiety and stress. So, it makes sense that we should do things to reduce anxiety and stress in our daily lives, like the sorts of breathing exercises that are used in meditation. These are effective in part because they push the autonomic nervous system toward its parasympathetic side, slowing the driving force of the sympathetic system and reducing the arousal level of the body and the brain. Do I do these exercises? Not as often or as effectively as I probably should. But cardiologists probably don’t always eat the right things or exercise as much as they should, either. It’s one thing to know what to do, and another to do it. (If we could figure out that discordance, we’d really know something.)

Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.
I spend a lot of time in my job learning new things, and I spend a lot of my leisure time learning how to play new pieces on the piano or guitar. What I know about the brain has changed my life by teaching me that with learning, “slow and steady wins the race.”  A few minutes of practice each day is better than several hours all at once, once a week, because of the neurochemical and neurodynamic processes involved in memory consolidation. I also know that practicing—whether it’s a new Bill Evans solo or cracking a multivariate differential equation—is best done every day at the same time.

David Linden, author of The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God.
The brain is not a generic problem-solving machine—rather, evolution has shaped it into a strange edifice that is very proficient in dealing with a particular subset of problems.  One area of social cognition where we humans really excel is knowing the precise direction of another’s gaze. In practical terms, this means that if you’re at a conference and you try to surreptitiously flick your eyes to a colleague’s name badge (or her breasts), you’ll get busted every time. This knowledge should prevent me from trying to get away with these behaviors, but it doesn’t. Neurobiological insight just makes me feel like even more of an idiot afterward.

Earl Miller, associate director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT.
I have learned that the brain has a very limited capacity to attend to multiple things. But at the same time, its ability to select what we attend can delude us into thinking that we’re better at multitasking than we are. So, on the few occasions that I drive, I never answer the phone or e-mails, and I hope others around me do the same. 

Steven Pinker, author of the forthcoming The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature.
There isn’t any aspect of my daily life that isn’t affected by my interest in the mind. When I have to write down a number, I make it a point to say it to myself, to use the brain’s echo chamber as an auxiliary memory. If while playing with my 2-year-old nephew I say, “I’ll borrow your brother’s dinosaur,” and he replies, “And I’ll borrow my dinosaur,” it makes me ponder the semantics of the verb borrow—and which parts he has not yet learned. When I see a pretty face, I reflect on whether I am reacting to its signs of youth, health, femaleness, or a population composite (and whether the composite is increasingly multiracial). When I listen to music, I attend to the note-by-note transitions and how they help me segregate the instruments. And when I find myself taking umbrage at a critical remark, I try to distinguish actual unfairness from my own self-deception and self-serving biases. I can’t say that this awareness makes me a wiser or better person, but it does add to the richness of everyday experience.

Oliver Sacks, author of the forthcoming Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.
Research, particularly fMRI research in the last decade, has shown us that music is represented in, and stimulates, many different parts of the brain. More and more, I use music for myself: To get me going, to change my mood, to stimulate my imagination.  And I use it to help patients who have Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, aphasia, autism, and many other conditions. Music has great therapeutic power—and no side effects.