Why do Americans overeat? Why do we still adhere to an economic system that increases the disparity between rich and poor? Why do we continue behaving as if our planet’s resources were infinite and ignore the warning signs of global warming?
These social problems have a common cause, according to Peter Whybrow, psychiatrist and director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA: They are the result of having brains and biology that are not well adapted (or “well-tuned”) to our current environment. In his new book, The Well-Tuned Brain, he examines why we sometimes seem to act outside of our best interest and what we can do to change course.
According to Whybrow, we are hampered by our instincts, which are at odds with the abundance in our society. “An explanation for our self-destructive behavior [is] to be found in a contemporary mismatch among three cardinal factors—ancient instinctual strivings that seek short-term reward, an efficient habit-driven brain, and the material affluence of contemporary market culture,” he writes.
In other words, we are in the midst of a perfect storm, and you can blame our dopamine-driven, pleasure seeking brain for our current problems… at least, in part. This system is what drives us to want to take advantage of pleasurable opportunities in front of us, rather than seeking restraint, and it goes all the way back to our prehistoric ancestors: If you wanted to pass on your genes, “you gobbled as fast as you could and hoarded the rest, preferably before some rival appeared to contest the prize,” writes Whybrow. Our brains are designed to reward us for grabbing more than our share, and this tendency can wreak all kinds of havoc, including overeating and overbuying.
Another factor is the power of habit—our brain’s tendency to go on autopilot when a thought pattern or a habitual behavior is established. Habit is important to how we function, allowing us to go through life without having to put conscious energy into every thing we do or every decision we make. In the best-selling book by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, this is the “fast” part of the equation: much of our life is “handled” by habit, from brushing our teeth to picking out a route to get to work, saving our brain’s energy for things that require conscious, or slow, effort. The problem, though, is that not all automatic habits are beneficial, such as grabbing a donut with your coffee or tuning out your spouse’s complaints.
These neural short-cuts don’t only affect one’s personal life, though; they can also work against us at the societal level. For example, we all continue driving cars requiring fossil fuel that pollutes the air we breathe, because it’s pleasurable in the short term (and brings us status), and feeds our habit of convenience. In addition, our government has built highways and spread-out communities that support the behavior, adding more incentive for us to continue to drive. It’s hard for us to thoughtfully respond to the disaster looming down the road when everything seems right in the short-term. Our neural circuits just don’t easily support that kind of thinking.
In fact, Whybrow argues, our whole consumer-based economy in general is badly matched to our psychology. We are more driven by impulse and imitation than rational analysis, which advertisers (and others) take full advantage of, urging us to want and buy more material things. He writes, “…the choices we make are reflexive and intuitive, tuned through the imitation of the behavior of others and the memory-driven templates that have been fashioned from many years of marketplace experience.” In other words, we are programmed to seek material wealth through learned buying habits that are hard to break.
So, does Whybrow think it’s hopeless? Not if we can tune our brains more carefully to balance our fast and slow thinking processes. We know that it’s possible to become aware of automatic thoughts and behaviors and consciously change them—for example, with mindfulness training or cognitive reframing. But, of course, it would be easier if we focused on developing the proper balance right from the start, creating social institutions and policies that support healthy brain development for our children, rather than exploiting their fast thinking brains for easy profit. Whybrow suggests using the findings from social science research to develop education programs, psychological interventions, and economic policies that better work with our psychology to solve social problems.
Take the obesity epidemic, for example. Scientists have shown that eating patterns are set early in life, so it’s important to start young if you want to change them. Social support also plays a big role in changing behavior: if you surround yourself with people trying to eat better, you will also eat better. Also, environmental conditions play a role, with accessibility to healthier food choices being an important factor. So, it makes sense that successful programs will work with young kids and their parents, provide access to healthy food, and promote group support and encouragement to really make a dent in changing behavior. But, few programs do all of these, making it hard to make headway.
Whybrow also believes schools need to change, to reflect what we know about learning. Currently, our schools do too much testing and not enough teacher training or fostering of positive teacher/student relationships. He suggests following education models that have proven more successful, like those in Finland, where teachers are highly trained and well paid, and where testing is almost non-existent. He cites the importance of positive attachment and trust in learning to explain why focusing on teachers is necessary for educational success. In addition, research on educational testing shows how ineffective it is in creating lasting learning and in predicting later success and happiness in life.
Whybrow’s knowledge clearly ranges far and wide—the book melds together history, philosophy, anthropology, economics, psychology, and neuroscience—which is both an asset and a curse. While it can be interesting to see how bartering developed into our current market system, for example, the history gets a bid tedious, as do the references to Adam Smith’s writings on human nature. It would have been more interesting to include additional findings from scientific experiments to lend concrete support for Whybrow’s views.
Still, the book has merit. For those who want to see how to put everything together to better understand our nature and make positive social change, they will find the book quite readable, intriguing, and, in parts, instructive. “Without deliberate and reflective self-appraisal, it is frequently difficult to know the difference between those habits that are adaptive and those that are impediments,” writes Whybrow.
He is not the first, nor will he likely be the last, to suggest that self-reflection—or knowing thyself—may be the most important contribution we can make toward creating the world we want to see.