You Have a Tricky Brain and It’s Not Your Fault

Everyone prefers happiness over suffering, but it can be difficult to steer our emotions and moods toward a happier state. According to evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Paul Gilbert, we are burdened with a big challenge he refers to as a “tricky brain!”

Why tricky? In his captivating book, “Mindful Compassion,” Dr. Gilbert explains that our brains have been shaped by evolution, which is not the most intelligent designer. We could have a better brain, if evolution were able to reorganize it (like rebuilding a software program from scratch), but evolution doesn’t work that way—it can only build newer brain functions on top of old, patching and extending things over time.

It makes sense that over millions of years, our brains have become rather unwieldy and unstable. The “old brain” continues reacting to jarring stimuli as if it were life-and-death, as if a saber tooth tiger were about to attack you from behind, instead of the reality: you lost our keys and are about to be late for an important meeting.

It’s like we have two brains – old brain and new brain. The old brain runs emotions, which guide our motives (social and otherwise) to help us get what we need and depend on for survival. Old brain mechanisms, on the other hand, evolved functions that direct the body to deal with threats, take shelter, find food, seek out a sexual partner, etc.

In the last million years, our brains have evolved in profound ways. With a growing neocortex, we became able to think, reason, and plan, enabling us to cooperate and communicate. However, this new brain isn’t foolproof or even 100% advantageous. Because of these abilities for thought and self-awareness, we become burdened with habits of ruminating, comparing, self-criticism and judgment—with emotional by-products like anxiety, vindictiveness or depression. Unlike other animals, humans can anticipate the possibility of starving to death or obsess on a fearful experience. As they say in 12-step meeting, “stinkin thinkin” can get us stuck in a loop until we find a way to intervene.

The two brains are linked and intertwined. The old brain can hijack the new brain, where all of its thinking and planning becomes enlisted by the survival fears of the old brain. Our thinking can become linked or looped into a stream of threat-fueled anxiety, anger, or worry.

As always, 80% of the solution lies in understanding the problem. We can have a better relationship with ourselves when we stop judging ourselves and develop compassion for ourselves, accepting the fact that our brains are replete with conflicting ideas, emotions, and desires. Tricky!

In “Mindful Compassion,” Dr. Gilbert teaches how to break self-destructive thinking cycles, reorganize the mind, and keep it on track for positive and constructive action. (My podcast talk with him is definitely worth a listen.)

For the sake of self-compassion—which, as Dr. Gilbert explains, is a healing balm for our suffering—it’s important to remember that your brain’s conflictedness is not your fault! Likewise, we are not responsible for the family system or society we were born into, so let’s have compassion for ourselves around that too! The great news is that we can learn to rewire our tricky brain by combining the skill of mindfulness and the power of self-compassion.


Perceptual Intelligence

Exploring the brain’s ability to interpret and make sense of the world, Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler describes how your perception can be reality or fantasy and how to separate the two, which is the basis of improving your Perceptual Intelligence (PI). His new book is Perceptual Intelligence: The Brain’s Secret to Seeing Past Illusion, Misperception and Self-Deception.

The Well-Tuned Brain

Why do we continually engage in behavioral patterns that are destructive to ourselves, to society, and to the environment? How did we become such a society of mindless consumers? Peter C. Whybrow, MD, author of the book, The Well-Tuned Brain: The Remedy for a Manic Society attempts to answer these questions and more. He is a psychiatrist and endocrinologist, and director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. Born and educated in England, he is the author of, among other books, A Mood Apart and the award-winning American Mania: When More Is Not Enough.

The Mind Club

Kurt Gray is the author of the new book, The Mind Club: Who thinks, what feels, and why it matters. Kurt Gray is a professor of social psychology at UNC Chapel Hill who received his PhD from Harvard University. He studies mind perception and morality, pondering such questions as “what is the nature of good and evil,” “can we ever truly know ourselves,” “why are humanoid robots so creepy,” and “what makes grandma’s cooking taste so good?”

The Brain’s Hidden Quest for “Cool”

Steven Quartz is the author of the new book, Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World. By bringing together the latest findings in brain science, economics, and evolutionary biology to form a provocative theory of consumerism, Steven explains how the brain’s “social calculator” and an instinct to rebel are the crucial missing links in understanding the motivations behind our spending habits.

Vagina: A New Biography

Naomi Wolf is author of the new book, VAGINA: A New Biography. Author, social critic, and political activist Naomi Wolf raises awareness of the pervasive inequities that exist in society and politics. She encourages people to take charge of their lives, voice their concerns and enact change.

Wolf’s landmark international bestseller, The Beauty Myth, challenged the cosmetics industry and the marketing of unrealistic standards of beauty, launching a new wave of feminism in the early 1990s. The New York Times called it one of the most important books of the 20th century. In her long-anticipated new book, she asks, “could a profound connection between a woman’s brain and her experience of her vagina affect her greater sense of creativity—even her consciousness?” She argues that this connection is not only real—and long-overlooked—but that it is fundamental to a woman’s sense of self.

The Art of Smart Thinking

Dr. Jim Hardt discusses his book, The Art of Smart Thinking and the work of The Biocybernaut Institute. He has dedicated his life in the research and development of brain wave training and has traveled worldwide to study advanced Yogis and Zen masters, explored Christian prayer and contemplation. Dr. James Hardt has developed a technology based on his research into the neurofeedback field. This technology has demonstrated significant effectiveness in healing and transforming core dimensions of personality.