The Most Important Thing to Learn About Your Brain

Here’s the most important thing I ever learned about the way we see the world and process information…. The brain is in charge of two very different goals:

1. Successfully move our bodies around through space and time (accomplish tasks needed for survival)

2. Use as little energy as possible. Even though it accounts for 2% of our weight, the brain uses about 20% of our body’s energy. Unless we’re really motivated—given extra rewards, or come across a mistake we can’t avoid—we conserve energy.

Ergo, the Law of Least Effort

In Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize-winning researcher Daniel Kahneman, here’s a primer: we do the “thinking fast” bit unless we really, really have to.

Thinking Fast = System 1, our automatic, intuitive mind that usually lets us navigate the world easily and successfully; habitual, model-free thinking (actions outcome, regardless of where we are).
Thinking Slow = System 2, our controlled, deliberative, analytical mind; model-based and goal-directed (takes other things into account)

So, to repeat: our brain appears to view controlling itself—or thinking—as a cost: it will only use System 2 to think deeply, learn something new, and update itself when it has to, when there’s real value.

Another function of System 2 (slow) is to monitor System 1 (fast): we’ll learn when we have no choice but to confront a mistake, which means that it does a miraculous job of avoiding situations when it could be at fault. Why? From our brain’s perspective, finding out that we’ve made a mistake is tiring, because it means that we have to adjust the controls, and reconfigure how we make sense of the world.

The idea that thinking itself is a cost leads to the most common cognitive error, the focusing illusion, commonly referred to as WYSIATI: What You See Is All There Is.

We all view the world like a fisheye lens:







This makes sense from a survival standpoint: we have to focus on what’s right around us. From our perspective, we are always at the center of the world. Everything is right in front of us; thinking of anything else takes work.

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Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don’t believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong; take your pills. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason.

Andrew Solomon

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Can You Learn to be Lucky: Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others by Karla Starr

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