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.