I love this book, and the down-to-earth clarity with which Lisa describes the workings of the brain. Her sense of humor makes it a fun romp. She fleshes out my own intuitions about the brain and adds a whole raft of things I had never heard or thought of. It’s beautiful the way it all fits together.
As much as I love the book, if falls short of its possibilities. It reminds me of something Jean Klein said about rearranging the furniture in your cell to make it more comfortable, but ignoring the fact that you’re in prison when you could be free.
Here’s Lisa’s advice for rearranging the furniture in your cell:
When you were a child, your caregivers tended the environment that wired your brain. They created your niche. You didn’t choose that niche—you were a baby. . .
Things are different after you grow up. You can hang out with all kinds of people. You can challenge the beliefs that you were swaddled in as a child. You can change your own niche. Your actions today become your brain’s predictions for tomorrow, and those predictions automatically drive your future actions. Therefore, you have some freedom to hone your predictions in new directions, and you have some responsibility for the results. Barrett, Lisa Feldman. Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain (p. 62). HMH Books. Kindle Edition.
The problem is that the “you” who is making all these changes is the result, not only of experiences it had as a baby, but of everything that has happened to it since. Your brain is constantly making predictions about what your perception and behavior will be in the current situation, as it always has—this is Lisa’s description of how it works. “You” have been constructed by your brain’s interaction with its environment ever since it was born, and that “you” changes, at least a little bit, every time your brain incorporates new information.
Your brain could add Lisa’s information to the way it makes predictions, but whether or not it actually does so depends on its current point of view. Your life may have prepared your brain to be receptive to such an idea, or to recoil in horror, or to be unimpressed. Any one of those reactions is the result of your brain comparing your present circumstances to everything that has happened in the past, and predicting your present behavior based on that comparison. If it is receptive, you may find that your behavior, including your thoughts, will change in the ways Lisa suggests—she’s giving you a recipe, after all. Just rearrange the furniture in your cell in this way and it will be much more comfortable. The whole process occurs within the interaction of neurons that create the perception that “you” are doing something, but it’s as automatic as a baby learning to see faces.
This can be a very scary idea, or hugely liberating, depending on what kind of brain you bring to the party. The scary part is that everything you know about yourself is wrong. You have to look at your whole life—who you are, who your friends are, what human beings are—in a strange new way.
The good news is that the new way can be a helluva lot more fun than the old way, although it takes time to learn. As Lisa says, learning new things is difficult at first, but in time the brain tunes itself to do them automatically. You can get used to the idea that you are a biological machine processing data, not the master of your destiny—being the master of your destiny is way overblown anyway. You can let go of the illusion of mastery, relax, and more thoroughly enjoy the fact that this machine has some pretty nice perks built in.