What Were You Thinking? Why The Brain Makes Poor Choices, and How to “Smarten It Up”

We used to believe that we had one big vat in our brain called memory. Now we know that people store information all over their body, with the three major receptacles in the brain.

How easily we forget

First, there is short-term memory found in the cortical, logical brain that acts like a small container. It is limited in capacity, meaning we can only remember a certain number of items that we are given in the moment. In this container, the brain mixes present input with related items from our stored memory, which then gives meaning to what is perceived.

However, if we want to remember what is conceived in short-tem memory for more than a few hours, or even minutes, then these bits of information must be transferred to one of the two other major memory centers, primal memory and long-term memory. This transference is called “learning.”

Two ways of learning

For people to remember anything, an emotion must be attached to the incoming stimuli. Otherwise, the brain doesn’t deem the data worthy of being remembered. However, different emotions cause data to “land” in different memory centers, which also affects how we can use this information later when it is recalled.

If people are scared into learning, such as by getting ultimatums, by being forced to compete with superior colleagues or family members, by threatening their security or predictability about work or life, by demeaning their value, or by pushing them into situations that feel unfair or hopeless, then they learn what they need to survive in the moment. However, if they are overcome by hopelessness, rebellion, or resignation, they may learn nothing at all.

Even if they do remember what they are told, when they face similar situations in the future, they have only learned to act in one way. When people learn by fear, they transfer the information to the memory center in the primal brain, found in the brain stem. This memory is below our consciousness. It is primed to react when a threat appears. So anytime they face a similar situation, they react in the same way. They behave in the one way they learned in order to survive this situation. Once the reaction occurs, then the “logical” brain is employed to rationalize and defend the behavior. They act with emotions and rationalize with logic. There is no analysis. There is no considering possibilities. It is very hard to rewire and change this behavior. This is one of the reasons why it is so hard to change behavior even when we know it doesn’t serve our best interest.

However, if we want people to be able to act thoughtfully, creatively or strategically, then we should refrain from threats and competition and instead, use emotions that trigger neurotransmitters instead. When people experience laughter, compassion, gratitude, pride, dignity, joy, love, social connection, achievement, contribution, insight and personal breakthroughs, the memories are not only stored in long-term memory which is associative instead of reactive (meaning that when bits of information are recalled into short term memory they are pliable and changeable by the new information), they create more synaptic connections and richer neural networks, which gives the brain greater flexibility to access many pathways at once, leading to more creative thought processes.

Long-term memory is in the social or middle brain. Other emotions may be associated and triggered by memories lodged here, but the emotions mentioned above, and similar feelings, trigger the greatest synaptic activity.

Four ways to “Smarten up” the brain

Brain Tip #1: Teach with inspiring and humorous stories, relevant cartoons, identifiable and pleasurable metaphors, and compelling examples. Information delivered with pleasurable and heartfelt emotions are quickly transferred into long-term memory. The facts may be lost, but the stories and the message will live on. (Learn how to be more inspirational and funny at the end of this article)

Brain Tip #2: Provide opportunities to learn by serving others. Acknowledge when people serve us. When we give to others, we often realize the happiness we have been seeking for ourselves. We do not forget when people have shown us gratitude. Our brain loves to remember things and events that leave us feeling love, appreciation, and pleasure. And when people appreciate our efforts, we seek to repeat what has been praised.

Brain Tip #3: Use discovery. Engage people in dialogue. Whenever possible, coach instead of teach. People don’t resist change; they resist being changed. If the brain perceives that someone is trying to make it learn something, it might throw up a wall. If the brain thinks there is a judgment along with the lesson (you must think I’m stupid, inadequate, inexperienced, or slow), then it will have you act defensively or shut down. Instead, ask good questions. Help people learn for themselves. The pleasure that goes along with discovery triggers a wave of synaptic activity.

Brain Tip #4: Encourage trials and experiments. Praise the effort as well as results. If we don’t put what we learn into action, then it can fall into the back of the brain’s filing cabinet where it might be found in the future, or not. We learn best when we are in action. Yet we need praise and acknowledgment to go the distance, especially if we make mistakes as we learn. Adults need approval and acknowledgment just as much as children do

If you want people to be more innovative and resourceful, make sure that you create a pleasurable, participative and safe environment for learning. The happier the brain, the smarter the person.

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