The next several paragraphs were inspired by articles from Sharon Begley’s Science Journal that appeared weekly in WSJ years ago.
We apparently are changed by the groups we are in. By the way, Republican and Democratic Parties are groups. Change groups or leave a group and we change.
In study after study, social psychologists have shown that it is the group with which we identify, not individual personality that often determines behavior. We begin to see what the group sees and stop seeing some of the things that we were seeing.
But, and this is a big but, pull us out of a group and we will have more nuance, flexibility, and doubt. We are not so sure anymore as individuals outside of our group, whereas in a group we are convinced of what we are saying and doing. The group we join is very important. That group could be friends, it could be our employer, it could be our church, or it could be the virtual prison more and more of us seem to be finding ourselves in. In either case, it doesn’t change with age—young or old, we are influenced by our group.
Psychology experiments show how disturbingly easy it is to manipulate people into committing atrocities. Groups inculcate a sense of belonging and hence obligation to a group.
So, if we want to change, we can join a group, but we better fit in. Do we like the people we work with and for? Has our spouse ever said to us that we seem different, that we have changed, and that there is an aspect of us they don’t like that they didn’t realize was there? Maybe, our jobs are changing us. Which way? Look for the formal and informal leaders and see if others are mimicking them. Are we becoming more assertive or bossier? Are we becoming more tolerant or judgmental? Are we becoming more patient and calm or more restless and rude? Are we becoming conforming or less conforming? Do we see more of the big picture or just our own perspective? Are we becoming more humble or is ego sprouting its wings.
Businesses have sent employees to seminars and workshops and schools in an effort to help them become better employees. Businesses, in hopes of salvaging employees, send them to anger management or harassment counseling hoping these people can change. Supervisors are sent to supervision school and people skills schools. People read self help books and get counseling hoping to be better parents or deal with life situations.
Attending a conference can inspire someone to want to act differently and they might for a little while but their habits and instincts will prevail again. Using the conscious mind to try to create permanent change is a slow process and rewards are needed to reinforce the new behavior. Can we really expect to have those rewards as they are needed?
I think the best place to begin the process of change is through nutrition. If we don’t have the discipline to eat smarter why would we have it to change our habits. Eating healthy or healthier not only improves mental and physical energy it demonstrates a willingness to do what we know is best for us. It is easy to pick up a book and learn what foods are healthy and which are not, but do we and do we change what we eat as a result of what we learn? I am not talking about fad diets; I am talking about eating good foods and stop eating bad foods. If we can’t change the way we eat, can we expect to change the way we think and behave?
Let’s think about brain food because our brain uses 40 percent of our energy and for our brain to grow and improve, our nutrition has to improve. The brain is largely composed of fatty tissue. The fats we eat are the fats that will become important structures in our brain. They are not broken down and reassembled for specific uses like proteins and carbohydrates are. The quality of the fats in our diet will directly affect the quality of the cell membranes in the brain.
There are two essential fats our bodies require but cannot manufacture; they must be obtained through our diets. These fats are called omega-6 and omega-3. Most of our tissues have more omega-6 fats than omega-3. The ratio is often about four-to-one, the brain being a distinct exception where the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in brain tissue is one-to-one.
The average American diet provides twenty times more omega-6 than omega-3 fats. Most of us do not take in an optimal amount of omega-3 fats unless we eat fish regularly. Omega-3 fats are quite flexible and are ideally suited for brain cell membranes.
The fats to avoid are the highly processed fats, hydrogenated fats, and fats that are heated to high temperatures in processing or in frying. These fats have a structural rigidity that is most undesirable for use in brain cell membranes. They also promote free radical damage of cell membranes.
Alright, enough about diet. Permanent change will come about when we release what is in our subconscious minds, feed our brains with better thoughts and more peaceful music and movies, and starve our brains from coarse or violent acts and thoughts. Our brains can change.
Here is a brainteaser: Turn the incorrect Roman-numeral equation XI + I = X, made out of 10 match sticks, into a correct one by moving as few sticks as possible.
Solving a problem like the one above creatively requires us to resist conventional assumptions and approaches and examine a problem from a different perspective. The plod and plug approach would have us move one of the sticks to get X + I = XI. But the minimum number of sticks we need to move is zero. Turn the paper upside down and XI + I = X becomes X = I + IX.
The brain waves generated by the two approaches are different. In volunteers who found the creative zero stick solution there was an abrupt change in brain wave frequency and location of brain activity before the solution hit them. The fact that they changed right before the volunteers hit upon a creative solution suggests that the brain was escaping from conventional thought patterns.
Insight and creativity begin when we break out of the thinking rut we are in and restructure the problem in a new way. The information in the problem is seen in a new light, so people rotate the sticks in the Roman numeral equation—a spatial solution to what seemed like a numerical problem. This is the essence of creative thinking.
A critical part of insightful solutions, but not of plodding ones, is that they require us to bring together distant associations. One brain region seems particularly important for that. This area seems to draw together distantly related information and probably lets people see connections that had eluded them.
Find a word that can form a compound with “sauce,” “pine,” and “crab.” You can try to solve this noncreatively, thinking of everything that goes with crab and then trying them all on the pine, for instance. Or you might find a solution through pure insight. Stare at the words until an answer pops into your head.
If “apple” popped into your head there probably was a spike in the activity in a particular part of your brain just before the answer “apple” came to you, suggesting your brain was bringing together far-flung concepts.
In some cases of sudden insight another part of the brain becomes active perhaps directing the brain away from dead ends and onto creative paths and at the same time perhaps is involved in suppressing thoughts that characterize the mental rut that keeps us from an insightful solution.
There are times that our brains go into calm mode all by themselves and answers just pop into our heads. We may be in the morning shower still waking up and just going through the motions of washing ourselves, enjoying the warm water and all of a sudden new ideas come to us out of nowhere. We can develop more of these times and we can expect to solve difficult problems during these times. The more we expect answers to come to us the more will come. So, we need to let our conscious minds work hard at figuring out a problem or finding an answer, the harder we work our conscious minds the better, and then let it go and expect an answer to come to us perhaps when we least expect it.
Our brain will change to help us become what we choose to be. If we choose to be violent, our brain will respond by changing in ways that make us more violent and coarse. If we choose a life of compassion and kindness, our brains will respond by helping us manifest those qualities. This is easier said than done because it is hard to act as we choose if we are already excessively wired to act otherwise.
One more thought: The Truth Shall Set You Free!