In Data We Trust

So much of what we’re learning from neuroscience can’t help but strike us as utterly fantastic, like the fact that the world we experience exists only in our heads, or that reason has little or nothing to do with how we make decisions.  At the same time, those that are trying to draw practical applications from the research often end up sounding like self-help books.  When we are advised to think positive thoughts, or win friends by stepping into the shoes of others, it sure sounds like Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carneige.

This makes it difficult to see the latest research as offering anything of value, or at least anything that’s new.  In truth, most of what we’re learning and the advice it generates can be found in Plato’s writings.  But there is a major difference: we now have hard scientific data to back up the claims.  It’s one thing to accept on faith that being clear on our values will enable us to lead a good life.  It’s quite another thing to know that high level ideas embedded in neural networks will chemically key the firing of lower level thinking and behavior aligned with them.

Because regardless of questions about its role in decision-making, our conscious reasoning can direct our attention.  If we’re logically convinced that big ideas are important, we’ll spend more time attending to them.  When we know that there are mirror neurons that enable us to empathize, and that they’re missing from people suffering from autism, we’ll be a little more willing to direct our attention to what those neurons can teach us.

While the more we learn about the brain, the more we recognize how little conscious control we have over it, we can direct our attention and we can improve our ability to focus.  Meditation has been shown to help children with ADD, and Eric Kandel’s work has demonstrated that the more we use a neural network, the stronger it becomes.  With practice, we become better at any skill, physical or mental.

While Napoleon Hill’s classic Think and Grow Rich may have oversimplified the path to success, our thinking can change the way we see the world, the way we act, and the way others see us.  While it takes discipline to focus our minds on positive outcomes, at least now we have reasons to give it a try.

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