Using the brain effectively

So the next time you try to respond to an email on your smartphone while listening to your colleague talk about his latest achievement, you should stop and ask yourself which of the two mental processes you really want to engage in. Your brain is better equipped to handle one complex process instead of two. So is it more practical to respond to that email with your undivided attention? Remember the destructive potential of reply all? When you accidentally used it to declare your undying love for Arijit Singh to the entire sales team instead of just one colleague?

On top of the limitations of the brain, our memories are also fallible. Anupam was absolutely sure that his child’s first movie was Kung Fu Panda, till his wife showed him the photo she clicked next to an Iron Man cutout at the multiplex.

Our memory is weaker—much weaker—than we perceive it to be. For example, how much can you rely on mental images that are based on memory? Take a mental image of a striped tiger. Go ahead, form a powerful mental image of a tiger and then try to answer a simple question: how many stripes does your tiger have?

That question cannot be answered. But all tigers have a definite number of stripes. Forget the number of stripes on a tiger, sometimes we can’t even remember the combination of the number lock on our cycles. And we won’t even get into how we have faulty memories of what our spouses wore on special occasions.

Like the flawed and incomplete image we have of the tiger in our head, most of our memories are manufactured by us—they have a lot less to do with what really happened than we would like to believe. We imagine our past to a significant extent, and in doing so, we invent memories, as well as feelings such as nostalgia.

There are two clear implications of the limitations of our minds and the fallibility of our memories: first, we are bad decision-makers and second, our minds can be manipulated easily.

Let’s consider the first one. There are bad, even random, decisions. Faced with the same choice in the same circumstances on two consecutive days, we might take two totally different decisions. One day, we took Tulsi Pipe Road from Bandra to Lower Parel and the next day we took the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Both decisions make perfect sense to us and have the same goal—reaching work on time. And yet, we didn’t have any reason for taking different routes.

The Indian government’s ever-changing rationalisation for demonetisation (black money, terrorism, corruption, counterfeiting, etc.), which were extensively documented in the Indian press, is a public demonstration of post-facto rationalisation of a policy decision which must have arisen from a neural storm in someone’s head. Legendary trader and philanthropist George Soros’s son, Robert Soros, claimed that his illustrious father’s trades weren’t based on grand theories of reflexivity but rather on his back pain. George Soros admitted as much in the book, Soros on Soros, in a section on how he found out when things were going wrong:

I feel the pain. I rely a great deal on animal instincts. When I was actively running the Fund, I suffered from backache. I used the onset of acute pain as a signal that there was something wrong in my portfolio. The backache didn’t tell me what was wrong—you know, lower back for short positions, left shoulder for currencies—but it did prompt me to look for something amiss when I might not have done so otherwise. That is not the most scientific way to run a portfolio.

Which brings us to the second issue, our vulnerability to manipulation. As our brain reaches almost every meaningful decision through neural war, it is highly prone to suggestion and manipulation (without realising that it is being manipulated).

Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), i.e. a magnetic pulse which excites a part of the brain, to initiate movement in either the left or right hand to show this. Participants sat in front of a computer screen and were told to raise their right or left hand as the screen cued the colours red, yellow and green. At red, participants made their decision of right or left hand and activated this decision when the lights turned green.

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