Why The Brain Thrives on What It Fears Most

Everything we do in life we do to decrease uncertainty — Beau Lotto

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Your perception of the world, life, yourself and others affects each and every decision you have ever made, or ever will make. Neuroscientist Beau Lotto has devoted much of his work to understanding perception, creativity, biases, and much more. He is the author of the book Deviate, which reveals startling truths about the brain and it’s perceptions. Beau argues that the next big innovation in the world is not a new technology, but rather a new way of seeing. 

For A Deep Dive on Your Most Common Biases Check Out — http://www.successpodcast.com/weaponsofinfluence

Uncertainty of what your brain is receiving can lead to extreme consequences. Let’s take a simple example from Beau…

When you go down below in a boat and your eyes are moving and registering the boat, and your eyes are saying, “Oh, we’re standing still,” but your inner ears are saying, “No, no, we’re moving.” And your brain cannot deal with that conflict so it gets ill. — Beau Lotto

While getting a little seasick is not the end of the world the consequences of too much uncertainty can be tremendous. Too much uncertainty increases brain cell death. It decreases plasticity in the brain and transforms you into a more extreme version of yourself. 

Think back to a time when you had to deal with extreme uncertainty. Was this a pleasant experience? Oftentimes when we are making extreme changes to our lives such as changing careers, moving to a new place, trying something potentially dangerous for the first time we see a drop in our health and mental state. This is because our brains are deeply wired to avoid this type of uncertainty at every turn. 

Every minute of every day we are making hundreds of assumptions, which helps us mentally avoid uncertainty. As I type this I assume the chair I am sitting on will not give way and leave me sprawled out on the floor. I assume the desk in front of me was assembled correctly, I assume the keyboard on which I am typing will continue to work, and so on and so forth. 

These assumptions are absolutely critical to our survival. Can you imagine what a nervous wreck we’d be if I stopped to make sure my chair was sturdy each minute. First of all I’d never finish writing this article but even worse I would most likely worry myself into no longer using this chair, checking the screws on my desk, and monitoring the battery life of my keyboard. 

However, these assumptions can largely be a double edged sword themselves. Our brains are wired to take what is meaningless and assign it meaning. Look at the flip side, in the early development of human beings if I assumed that rustling sound was not a predator and it turned out to be a panther… it’s too late. I’m dead. Taking this information and all the inputs around you and assigning them meaning is the process of creating your own perceptions. The key is to be able to determine what can be assumed and what it worth checking out and worrying about. 

Here’s the kicker. 

If we do everything to avoid uncertainty, how will we ever see anything differently?

We do almost everything to avoid uncertainty. And yet the irony is that that’s the only place we can go if we’re ever going to see differently. — Beau Lotto

How would we ever be creative if we never dared to venture into the uncertainty of life? How would we learn to perceive the world differently through new information if all we did was avoid uncertainty our entire lives. Creativity begins with a question, a hypothesis, it begins with a “why?” or a “what if?” all which come through uncertainty. 

This is also why it’s an interesting reaction when people become mad at one another for “flip-flopping” their opinions. Too often, especially in politics, individuals are criticized for changing their opinions to reflect new facts, new evidence, and new information. But how can we ever hope to grow and draw new conclusions if we ignore the uncertainty of new facts and opinions. 

The irony of uncertainty is that while we were undoubtably hardwired to avoid it, it holds the key to our growth and to our success. As we noted, too much uncertainty for too long a period can have drastic consequences for your health but avoiding it altogether leaves one walking in place. 

The Research Backed Guide To Being Lucky

Let me ask you an important question…

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Are you a lucky person?

Shockingly, your answer to that question actually has more to do with how lucky you are than anything else. Recently, science has proven that we actually can create our own luck. This groundbreaking research reveals several evidence-based tactics you can use to help you stumble into that next great opportunity.

Dr. Richard Wiseman has been named “The Most Interesting and Innovative Experimental Psychologist in the World Today” by The Scientific American. His research and experiments have shed light on some of science’s most interesting topics and debunked several common “self-help” practices.

In a recent interview on The Science of Success, Dr. Wiseman explains how you can find more luck in your life today with science based steps.

But First, A Story…

So you think you’re unlucky, huh? Before we get into the steps, let’s review some of the stories from the Luck Experiments. Dr. Wiseman began by gathering thousands of people who considered themselves lucky or unlucky.

To give you some context, this was the experience of one self-proclaimed “unlucky” person…

· 5 Car Accidents Within 50 Miles — On the same trip.

· Signed Up For A Dating Service…

1. First date broke a leg on the way to meet her.

2. Second, ran into a glass door and broke his nose.

3. When she got engaged, the church she was to be married in burnt down the day before her wedding.

So… maybe you aren’t as unlucky as you thought. Despite these experiences, through adopting some of the mindsets in Dr. Wiseman’s research and implementing some new practices in her life, she actually is luckier.

So let’s get into it, here’s how you can go from unlucky to lucky, in no time at all.

The Newspaper Effect — Your Attention Spotlight

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One of the most interesting differences between lucky and unlucky people is their attention spotlight. Lucky people are always looking for an opportunity in the details of everyday life. Where the unlucky tend to move forward without paying as much attention and without looking for luck. This hypothesis was proven and illustrated by Dr. Wiseman’s “Newspaper Experiment

Dr. Wiseman began by asking participants to classify themselves as lucky or unlucky. They were then asked to flip through a newspaper and count the number of pictures they saw. As a reward they would be given $100. What he did not tell participants was that there were two huge time saving opportunities embedded in the newspaper.

“One was a half-page ad with massive type that said “Stop Counting. There are 42 photographs in this newspaper” and the other was another half page ad that said, “Tell the experimenter you’ve seen this ad and collect your $100 now.” Recalls Dr. Wiseman. The findings were extremely clear. Those who considered themselves lucky saw the ad and collected their money immediately. Those who identified as unlucky sat and counted each ad, missing the valuable time saving message.

When those who considered themselves unlucky felt pushed, stressed, or concerned, their attention narrowed, they put their heads down and droned through the task. In contrast, those who identified themselves as lucky expanded their attention to try and grasp the details of what they were doing. Causing them to get “lucky” and spot this time saving message. If we take the time to slow down, pay attention to what we are doing, and believe we’re lucky, studies show, we will be.

Write It Down

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In his next experiment Dr. Wiseman set out to see if we could actually change our luck. “We thought, if we take a group of people who are not particularly lucky or unlucky and get them to think and behave like a lucky person, does that increase their luck?” recalls Dr. Wiseman.

In order to shift the subject’s mindsets they were asked to keep a “luck journal”. Dr. Wiseman lays out the rules, “We asked that at the end of each day they write down the most positive thing that happened or most positive thought they had that day. Or, in some cases, something negative that used to happen that no longer happens, or at very least some thought of gratitude.”

The participants who kept these journals reoriented themselves extremely quickly. They began to see the good things in their lives and the opportunities in front of them. “It’s the most simple interventions we found had the biggest impacts,” notes Dr. Wiseman. Journaling and putting thoughts to paper has been proven to have astounding mental health benefits. By focusing on the good that happens each day we rewire our brains to see more opportunity in each day. Thus increasing how “lucky” we feel with each day.

The Silver Linings Playbook

Once you’ve begun focusing on the positive, it can be hard to stop. Carol Dweck was the first to coin the term “Growth Mindset.” One of the key pillars to a growth mindset is learning and seeing the positive in everything. If you try something and you fail, don’t beat yourself up; focus on what you learned and how you can avoid the same pitfalls in the future. This keeps us moving forward and increase how “lucky” we are in the future as we know what not to do.

By constantly thinking you’re lucky it’s incredible how it changes your perspective of everything. Dr. Wiseman recounts a slightly comical but impactful scenario, “A lucky person would take something as negative as falling down the stairs and find the good. Sure, I fell down the stairs and broke my leg, but if I had landed slightly to the left. I would have broken both of them, lucky.”

You may be thinking that breaking one leg is still a poor outcome. It’s those who train their brain to regard themselves as lucky however who do not dwell on the negative but rather find the positive, shift their focus there, and move forward.

Don’t Be Scared of Change

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Oddly enough as Dr. Wiseman explains some people enjoy being unlucky. “About 20% of unlucky people rather enjoy being unlucky. Their self-identity is bound up with that.” This 20% enjoy being the clumsy guest at a party, enjoy never having things work out because on some level, it gives them an excuse.

These people according to the experiments are extremely hard to reach. While thinking lucky can dramatically change your life, you have to want to change to make it happen.

So start writing your own luck journal. Shift the way you think about yourself and the rest will trickle down into how you see the world and interact with others. If you want to start being lucky today, believe it to achieve it.

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How Do You Become Mentally Strong?

Mental toughness is one of the most common traits of top performers. So how do you become mentally strong?

Let’s look at the strategy used by a world champion

One of the absolute best strategies to become mentally strong is to embrace discomfort.

Josh Waitzkin is a multi-time national chess champion who transitioned into becoming a world champion martial artist. To put it simply, this guy knows what is takes to perform under serious pressure at the absolute highest levels.

He wrote an amazing book about his journey and what it takes to be a top performer called The Art of Learning. You can also get a great summary of some of the key ideas from The Art of Learning in this incredible interview Josh did with Tim Ferriss a few years ago.

My favorite quote from The Art of Learning perfectly answers the question of how to build mental toughness:

“My whole life I have worked on this issue. Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously. Left to my own devices, I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable. When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it.When injured, which happens frequently in the life of a martial artist, I try to avoid painkillers and to change the sensation of pain into a feeling that is not necessarily negative. My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them. This type of internal work can take place in the little moments of our lives. I mentioned how my style over the board was to create chessic mayhem and then to sort my way through the chaos more effectively than my opponents. This was a muscle I built up by training myself to be at peace with the unclear and tumultuous — and most of the training was in everyday life.” — Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

Josh provides some incredible wisdom in that quote. Embracing discomfort and becoming at peace with it is the best way to cultivate mental toughness and resilience — and this is key — that work takes place in your everyday life.

The little moments where you can push yourself beyond your comfort zone and get uncomfortable build tolerance and slowly expand your ability to get tougher and tougher.

The Sphere of Discomfort

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I call this the “sphere of discomfort” and it reminds me of this quote:

Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear. — George Addair

When you do something for the first time it’s scary. When you do it for the 10th time, you’re staring to get the hang of it. When you do it for the 1000th time, you’re practically getting bored.

When you play on the edges of your comfort zone, those edges slowly expand, and expand, and expand — and you start to be able to do more things, to push more boundaries, to achieve goals you never thought possible.

The strength and courage to break out of your comfort zone happens, as Josh said, in those little moments of your life. Take the opportunity to make yourself uncomfortable. Take a cold shower. Talk to a stranger. Ask the coffee shop for a free cup of coffee, just because. That’s how you start to get more and more comfortable with discomfort. Rejection therapy is another great tool to start really getting out of your comfort zone.

In the podcast episode below, I even tell a story of how this very Medium post would never exist without me, personally, progressively embracing discomfort!

How To Get Uncomfortable

For a few resources on how to go deeper on this I would recommend checking out the following:

  1. In this Google Talk — Josh Waitzkin explains many of his ideas and concepts around performance.
  2. In this podcast episode I break down a number of strategies for embracing discomfort in your daily life (and go deeper on Josh’s story).
  3. In this interview Jia Jiang discusses “rejection therapy” which can be a great way to familiarize yourself with discomfort (especially if you struggle with social situations).
  4. In this interview Dr. Andy Molinsky, a professor of psychology, explains a number of strategies for getting outside your comfort zone.

All of those resources, along with the book The Art of Learning, would be a great starting point toward becoming mentally tougher.

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