The Stuff of Brains

That migraine I was waiting for finally struck this week. Amazingly it didn’t throw my life into disarray, because it hit me during a week I was supposed to be having ‘off’. Consequently it only spoiled a day of relaxation, the day I intended to sort out and take a bag of old clothes to the Oxfam shop and do otherwise virtuous but non-professional activities.

One of the odd things about migraines is what it does to one’s brain. My first action was to turn my radio down from its typical volume level, my second was to put dark glasses on to hide from the bright light when I went outside. Conversations with my husband almost felt as if I was having to deal with a foreign language. 48 hours later (long after pain and aura had vanished) I was still finding myself using the wrong words in demented sorts of Malapropism’s, except I knew full well they were wrong but the right ones had gone AWOL. What does a migraine do to one’s neural connections that so mess up the ability to join up the dots of one’s thoughts over a relatively extended period? I find it scary to observe my brain losing control in this way, even if it is transient and I am fully aware of the cause.

My thoughts have anyhow been, in a very amateur way, turned to the workings of the brain. I have been reading Matthew Lieberman‘s book Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. I learned a lot from this book, even if there was plenty more I am sure I didn’t grasp or take in. I realise how much I don’t want to engage with the mere labelling of parts of the brain. I know of course it’s very important, but to me it is part of the ‘classification’ aspect of biology that bored me as a child. My mind simply glazes over with all the acronyms. But let’s put my failings aside.

One of the things that the book explored was how stimulus can lead to reward and increased connections in different ways. It led in many fascinating directions but, of relevance to my own personal interests, I was intrigued to read of studies into the effectiveness of ‘self-affirmation’. I first came across this idea specifically in the context of encouraging girls to stick with physics (a 2010 study is written up here). A year later a different but related study looked at the effect on the sense of belonging of African-American students at Yale and this was the paper discussed in the book. In both cases the students were asked to articulate some thoughts about who they were, how they fitted in and what they valued, although there were subtle differences between the two studies. In each case there were measurable long-term benefits to the ‘minority’ group (i.e. the girls or the African-American students) and there was no observed impact, good or bad, on the majority group. I didn’t understand why this strategy works when I first read about this approach and, to be honest, I still don’t.

Matthew Lieberman says ‘This is a pretty crazy finding if you think about it for a minute. Three years after spending an hour in a psychology experiment that momentarily amped their sense of belonging, students were still benefiting from it in their academic performance.’ Yes I think it is pretty crazy. The explanation?  The author implies there is a link between feeling good and the ability to think clearly and that this is at the heart of the benefit the studies identify, but that still doesn’t explain the durability of the effect to my mind and I remain baffled. Nevertheless, if this effect is real and of extended assistance in overcoming both stereotype threat and a sense of disadvantage arising from not being the same as everyone else, then perhaps we should be applying the technique very broadly. I would be interested to know if there are other studies out there that confirm the apparent advantages that self-affirmation can offer to minorities.

However, the Lieberman book, like Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (that Stephen Curry described on the Guardian blogs here) points out that we do many things that logically are illogical: we make different decisions according to how the same question is posed, we are willing to accept less advantageous propositions if they involve not gaining money as opposed to the actual possibility of losing some, and we rely on what looks like information even when all the evidence shows it’s worthless. So our brains are treacherous beasts that fool us into doing some pretty stupid things as well as some really smart ones.

The trouble is knowing what to do with this insight. We all suffer from cognitive illusions, those false beliefs that we intuitively accept as true. The illusion of validity is a false conviction regarding the reliability of our own judgment. Kahneman admits that he himself still suffers from this, that he cannot escape the illusion that his own intuitive judgments are trustworthy. We all do this; however I haven’t seen it discussed in the context of how we actually judge ourselves. It is usually pitched as something that concerns external judgements, such as choosing between two financial alternatives (which is how it applies in economics and why the psychologist Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics) or selecting candidates based on job interviews – but maybe it can also apply in how we think about ourselves. As in ‘I’m a girl and most physicists are male so I can’t be any good at it‘ whatever evidence there is to the contrary, perhaps in the shape of stellar exam results. Maybe self-affirmation is powerful because it helps to counter the implicit and invisible cognitive illusion that is otherwise internalised.

There is so much still to be learned about the workings of our brains, but even when the facts are out there somehow we have to find ways to act upon what we learn and not stick with the same old, same old. And that is something that is very hard to do when one ‘knows’ that something works, whatever the evidence.

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7 Responses to The Stuff of Brains

  1. Mark Field says:

    Interesting, I too had read of the Walton and Cohen study (I’m not sure where I read this – it certainly was not the original publication in Science you link to, or Lieberman’s book for that matter) and was amazed that something so transient could have such a large apparent effect.

    My gut feeling was that it was effective because it asked students to write their advice to other students about how to overcome adversity, in particular about their feeling that they don’t belong.

    I think this hits the nail on the head about the emotional and psychological decision to leave – the internalization of “I don’t belong here” seems to me to be the essential disconnect. It’s certainly been true in my life. The technique of asking the students to write advice very cleverly frames the problem in terms of something the students have already overcome rather than a problem to be surmounted, and gets the students to recall their own story about how they got to that point. It reinforces the sense that they can overcome obstacles and that they do belong, i.e. they are already a successful member of the group.

    I think in many cases we believe that students leave because they think “I cannot do this”. My hunch is that the first and overpowering sensation is that “I do not belong here”, and that leads to a distancing of oneself and shutting down that we hear about as “I cannot do this”. Maybe we are focusing on the wrong problem and Walton and Cohen are really on to something.

  2. Nick Walsh says:

    Sorry to be a boring psychologist. New research shows it to be a bit more complicated. See below.

    J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013 Jan;104(1):14-27. doi: 10.1037/a0030478. Epub 2012 Oct 29.
    Self-affirmation can enable goal disengagement.
    Vohs KD1, Park JK, Schmeichel BJ.
    Author information

    Abstract
    Much research has shown that after being self-affirmed, people respond to challenges in healthy, productive ways, including better task performance. The current research demonstrates that self-affirmation can also deflate motivation and performance, a pattern consistent with goal disengagement. We posited that being self-affirmed and then attempting but failing at a task would lead people to retreat from the goal. In support of this hypothesis, 4 experiments found that the combination of self-affirmation and the experience of failure led to demotivation and effort reduction. Experiment 1 found that self-affirmed participants, more so than nonaffirmed participants, reported being open to goal disengagement. Experiment 2 found that affirming core values before trying a task beset with failure reduced task motivation and performance. Experiment 3 demonstrated the robustness of the effect and found that failure on one task reduced motivation and performance on a new but related task. Experiment 4 revealed that being self-affirmed and experiencing failure caused participants to feel less capable of pursuing their goals, which produced poorer performance. These findings suggest that affirming the self can lead people to internalize the implications of failure, which in turn leads to goal disengagement.

    • Not boring at all. I’m intrigued. Can you, as a professional, explain it any more. Why does self-affirmation work at all? In the original paper about physics as I recall, the students weren’t asked to discuss their abilities in physics, just write about their values. Would/could that still lead to disengagment? And do you think, properly configured, self-affirmation could/should be used more widely?

  3. Nick Walsh says:

    Dear Athene, I’m happy to email you the article. In it, they say “Many studies have found that self-affirmation reduces defensive responses to threatening information….What self-affirmation does is to get people to accept information about their personal flaws as credible and view those flaws as plausible causes of future problems. In past work, self-affirmed people have been shown to react to these humbling realizations by intending to bring the self in line with more virtuous standards.”

    However, in a nutshell, this then has knock on effects in how people respond to failure. It’s not exactly my area of research but I read a few papers relating to this as a means to get around my procrastination problems.

  4. Mark Field says:

    Dr. Walsh – Thank you that is very interesting.

    I don’t want to drag the comments off topic, but I would be interested to know whether you found self affirmation useful in getting over procrastination. Something I struggle with too.

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  6. mineralphys says:

    Chime on the migraines: I have migraines that sound similar to yours. Luckily, I only have about one a year. I’m always amazed at the effects on my brain. My prodromal symptoms have evolved. Now I lose face recognition about 20 minutes before the aura starts. It’s is a very strange feeling. At the other end, once the pain abates I am left with the cottony brain, but also feeling a bit euphoric. I’m not sure if it’s chemical, or if I’m just glad that the migraine is over. Thanks also for the interesting psych discussion.