By | CLAY SKIPPER | www.gq.com
At the very beginning of her new book Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett writes that each chapter will present “a few compelling scientific nuggets about your brain and considers what they might reveal about human nature.” Though it’s an accurate description of what follows, it dramatically undersells the degree to which each lesson will enlighten and unsettle you. It’s like lifting up the hood of a car to see an engine, except that the car is you and you find an engine that doesn’t work at all like you thought it did.
For instance, consider the fourth lesson, You Brain Predicts (Almost) Everything You Do. “Neuroscientists like to say that your day-to-day experience is a carefully controlled hallucination, constrained by the world and your body but ultimately constructed by your brain,” writes Dr. Barrett, who is a University Distinguished Professor at Northeastern and who has research appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s an everyday kind of hallucination that creates all of your experiences and guides all your actions. It’s the normal way that your brain gives meaning to the sensory inputs from your body and from the world (called “sense data”), and you’re almost always unaware that it’s happening.”
People tend to feel like we’re reacting to what’s actually happening in the world. But what’s really happening is that your brain is drawing on your deep backlog of experience and memory, constructing what it believes to be your reality, cross-referencing it with incoming sense data from your heart, lungs, metabolism, immune system, as well as the surrounding world, and adjusting as needed. In other words, in a process that even Dr. Barrett admits “defies common sense,” you’re almost always acting on the predictions that your brain is making about what’s going to happen next, not reacting to experience as it unfolds. (Michael Pollan details the same neurological process in his book How to Change Your Mind.)