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 Why You Think You're Wonderful

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Female Number of posts : 1450
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Registration date : 2009-01-28

PostSubject: Why You Think You're Wonderful   Thu Feb 26, 2009 12:46 am

By Brian Bethune

There really isn't anything the human brain can't do, and that's aside from all that marvel-of-the-universe, super-computer stuff, like the ability to paint the Mona Lisa, or send a rocket to the moon or write Hamlet.

No, the truly great stuff your brain does for you, is to protect you from reality. Your mind loves you like a mother should: it convinces you that what you can do well (balloon animals, say) is important and what you're hopeless at (parallel parking, perhaps) is trivial; that you're better-looking and smarter than most and destined to stay that way forever.

Good thing too, as English psychologist Cordelia Fine explains in A Mind of its Own, her lighthearted tour through recent research. The category of people who come closest to objective truth about themselves (as measured by outsiders) are the clinically depressed.

Depression, of course, is an illness, but scientists have also learned that a more general sense of pessimism is dangerous to health. What Fine calls the "deathclock" only needs the answers to four questions to calculate how many years to shear off your life expectancy: sex, weight, smoking habits and "Are you a pessimist?"

Fine divides up the tricks played by our loving organ into various categories. The so-called vain brain, for instance, is so preening that research has shown it finds the very letters of your name more attractive than other letters. It obscures the statistical improbability of near-universal ideas about the self (almost 100 per cent of subjects rate themselves as better than average on any ordinary task like driving a car -- a mathematically impossible outcome).

Under the emotional brain, Fine cites tests that show how gut instinct makes many decisions that we think are reasoned. It's only after we've opted for one side of the question that our cognitive faculties -- in a manner so smooth we don't notice which came first -- provide the rationale.

The reason emotion speaks first is because it's so much quicker off the mark. Test subjects who pulled cards from four decks, two of which provided more rewards than the other two, developed an emotional antagonism to the penalty decks (as measured by skin receptors) long before they worked out why they felt the way they did. Conversely, people who have suffered subtle damage to the emotion-processing parts of their brains but whose intellects are otherwise unimpaired, often lead chaotically indecisive lives, unable even to choose a brand of razor blades.

There is, sadly, much more from the cheerful Dr. Fine. The immoral brain is what propels our tendency to blame the victim. Faced with an injustice we cannot ameliorate, our brains desperately want to believe that bad things happened to bad people -- otherwise we're faced with the intolerable idea that, through no fault of our own, we too could lose our health, our job, our child. There's the deluded brain.

One of the trickiest topics in psychiatry is trying to find the dividing line between the seriously nutty (my wife has been replaced by a look-alike space alien) and the quite sane. Sometimes it's only a matter of how widespread the unprovable tenet is. That 62 per cent of Canadians believe in angels troubles few beyond particularly bloody-minded atheists, precisely because so many people do and have done so for centuries. If belief in the continuing existence of Elvis suddenly spiked to that level, mental health professionals would be in full-blown panic mode.

Then there's the secretive brain (it's all right to let your subconscious take over walking, so you don't have to concentrate on sticking one foot in front of the other, but keep an eye on how it often rules your relationship with your parents); the weak-willed brain (the prima donna within); and the pigheaded brain, loftily unconcerned with mere proof. What the author likes best about that chapter is the fact, self-evident to the Fine brain, that anything the reader finds unconvincing in it merely proves the author's point.

It all adds up, Fine sombrely concludes, to a vulnerable brain. It's both disconcerting and bracing to learn all the ways our minds distort reality. But it's all in the cause of giving you a reason to get up in the morning, says the aptly named "terror management theory."

Concocted by a dour psychologist named Tom Pyszczynski, that concept argues that the brain's tricks are a vital defence against any "awareness that we humans are merely transient animals groping to survive in a meaningless universe, destined only to decay and die."

Yes, indeed, who could blame their mind for saving them from that? Far, far better to live in the comforting certainty that you're more than all right, no matter how many fools and knaves surround you -- and that your poor brain only does what it does because it really, really loves you.
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