4 Mistakes That Are Built into Your Brain


“Cognitive bias is the biggest self-imposed obstacle to progress, not only for oneself but in the end, for all mankind.” ~Unknown

On a beautiful Pittsburgh morning in 1995, McArthur Wheeler decided to rob a bank. Not just one bank, but two. McArthur had a secret plan, one that he thought would make him exceptionally successful. It involved something very sour, a lemon.

McArthur had just recently discovered the “invisible ink,” a substance commonly used in elementary science class. Lemon juice, when used as ink on paper and dried, only appears visible when heated. Unfortunately for McArthur, his ingenious plan involved covering his face in lemon juice and then robbing two banks.

The fact that his face was not made of paper didn’t discourage McArthur from employing his reasoning that some lemon juice on his face would make him invisible to all the surveillance cameras.

Unsurprisingly, several hours after the two robberies McArthur was in custody. To his astonishment his plan was unsuccessful. He even objected to detectives, “But I wore the juice.”

Although most of us have never been this ignorant, our lives are still full of examples of ignorance. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, some mistakes just never go away.

I have personally struggled with my own mistakes throughout my life. Not because I am scared of them, but rather because I seem to keep encountering the same problems. How can I make the same mistake over and over again? Am I just stupid? Why don’t I see other people making the same mistakes?

We all know that we need to approach these errors as learning opportunities, but that is much easier said than done.

The truth is that some of these mistakes are built into our brains. We are programmed by birth to make cognitive shortcuts. These are quick jumps in our thinking that often leave us making poor judgments and even worse, faulty decisions.

Let me explain.

Our brains are remarkably wondrous things that have evolved for one simple reason—survival. They have morphed into supercomputers that can take the unending sea of information in the world and make it simple. To be conscious of even a small percentage of all the information that our brains take in would be blinding.

Instead, our brains take in everything and only stream the information that fits within our model of the world. This is referred to as “mental accounting.” A good accountant doesn’t bore you with every detail of the process, but rather gives you the final product, which you care about. Our brains work the same.

Why Are We Always Right and Everyone Else Is Wrong

Have you ever had an argument with someone so frustrating you wanted to smash your head on the wall? Other people’s biases are always ripe for judgment, but rarely do we afford ourselves with the same pleasure. The brain is biased toward protecting our own beliefs and avoiding contradictory information.

If your beliefs are like a house, you must support your structure. You can’t go digging around the foundation looking for inconsistencies or contradictory beliefs. We have a vested interest in ignorance, which makes us naturally resistant to seeing our mistakes. Instead, we often try to justify our decisions and prove to others they are wrong.

Seeing Your Mistakes Is a Recipe for Growth and Clarity

Acknowledging your mistakes is a powerful method for seeing how easily we are influenced and biased. Looking at our decisions will provide clarity and create compassion for others around us.

Today we’re going to look at four mistakes we make in our daily living. These are wired into us; if you look hard enough you’ll see them everywhere.

Confirmation Bias – Why We Always Need To Be Right

Last week I was arguing with my girlfriend about something that I later realized was trivial and inconsequential. We had both entrenched ourselves in our opinions on the matter, and before we knew it we were shooting off a list of examples and reasons why the other party was wrong and we were both right.

This is the bias that makes arguing with people really annoying. Why? Because most people think they know what they are talking about. The problem is you also think you know what you are talking about.

So what usually happens when you encounter this dilemma? Naturally, the next logical step is assuming that they are either a) unfair/stupid/biased/illogical, or b) purposely being stubborn.

How can they not see the clear, impeccable logic of my argument and see that I am clearly correct?!

This is a slippery slope, and chances are both of you are suffering from the confirmation bias. We look for confirmation of our beliefs/philosophy or opinion in any context or situation. We find scenarios that support it and then stick to those, regardless of how terrible our argument may be.

Calling someone “closed minded” would be a manifestation of the confirmation bias. The confirmation bias is so fundamental to your development and your reality. We look for evidence that supports our beliefs and opinions about the world, but excludes those that run contrary to our own. Confirmation bias is the support structure that holds our beliefs into place.

You find examples of what you want to believe and ignore those that don’t fit.

Sunk Cost Fallacy – Why You Just Can’t Give Up on Things You Should Give Up On

When I was younger I got myself stuck in a long five-year relationship that I knew deep down was an absolute waste of time. We were not right for each other and on two totally different trajectories in life, but I still persisted. I kept thinking we had already spent so much time together, how could I possibly quit now?

This is the sunk cost fallacy, when we use past decisions to justify irrational current decisions. Basically, we justify putting more time/effort/money into something because we have done so in the past, despite the fact that evidence indicates continuing the decision will outweigh future rewards.

Sound familiar? We can see it everywhere. From business to our love lives none of us are safe from this pervasive little mistake. Sunk cost isn’t just a hyper persistent behavior, but rather persistence in the face of certain overwhelming evidence of potential future failure.

Money isn’t the sole factor that can escalate levels of commitment. Any form of pressure may contribute to an irrational level of commitment. Social pressure or psychological pressure are also powerful escalators.

Think of a relationship, one that you shouldn’t be in. I’m sure many of you have experienced that. How many times have you seen two people together and thought why the hell are they together? It’s pretty hard to pull the plug on something that you’ve spent so much time in, especially if you still hold an irrational hope that things will change.

The same goes with a job that you’ve done for years. You feel hesitant and scared to try something new. You’ve already spent so much time working hard; you can’t just leave now.

Fundamental Attribution Error – Why We Judge So Quickly

The driver in front of me is so slow. What is he or she doing? It must be an elderly person who can’t even see over the steering wheel. You increase your speed and catch up beside them wanting to satisfy your curiosity with a glance into the passenger window. You are surprised to find a young women talking on her cell phone.

It works like this: John is late, so therefore, John is inconsiderate and always late.

A small observation (regardless of how inaccurate it is) leads to a wide generalization. All further judgments are fixed with that label. Assigning fixed states or characteristics due to singular events is an automatic process that we use to simply the world.

The world is a complicated place, and the amount of sensory and social stimuli that our brains have to process is beyond our comprehension. This is the brain’s way of categorizing things, very fast and very inaccurately.

I know you are probably thinking of how unfair this is. Fairness is not an issue when faced with our intrinsic need to create a world that is both safe and controlled.

We want to make things understandable and safe, and consequently, easier to assign blame. Attributing failure to personality causes, as opposed to situational causes, is a wonderful way to accomplish this.

The truth is there is no way we can understand a fraction of the events that contributed to an event occurring; most of the time it’s simply pure speculation. Believing that things are tidy and neat satisfies our need to see the world as fair and encourages the illusion that we have control.

The fundamental attribution error is more than just judging a book by its cover; it’s represents a fundamental need to see the world as simple and easily understandable.

Availability Heuristic – Why You Never Consider the Long Term

I recently decided to wear a helmet while biking. I had never done this before, but after seeing a local news article about an accident I figured now would be a good time to start.

As I get older my ability to forget things has continued to amaze me. Time spent with friends and relatives seem to blur. Annual events come by and I am left shocked, thinking that I was in the same place at the same time last year doing the same thing. It somehow feels close and yet far away at the same time.

Our memory isn’t optimized to remember things in the past in incredible detail and clarity. We are biologically wired for the now. Our survival instincts have evolved to be hyperactive pattern detection machines that focus on the here and now.

Our vast experience and history is not automatically factored into our decision making process, rather we weigh our judgments to the present information. This is the availability heuristic; we overly value recent events over past events.

Good decision-making means using past experience and knowledge as a reference point for future decision-making, rather than using whatever random information you have recently encountered to form a decision. However, availability bias skips this step.

Why is it so hard to think clearly when you are emotional?

The answer is simple. Anything that is vivid, unusual, or packed with emotional latent material is given first class priority by our brains.

These upgraded passengers are pretty big and may even require an extra few seats on the plane, much to the chagrin of our more rationally minded smaller passengers. Decisions made in a more rational state of mind are quickly forgotten when an emotionally charged situation arises.

That’s why the ol’ walk around the block once and cool off trick usually works.

Bottom Line

These are just four of the many systemic mistakes that are built into our brains. Remember they aren’t evil or necessarily bad; in many cases they are necessary for healthy living. However, they do represent a fundamental method for simplifying the world and making it more understandable.

I think the biggest takeaway from these four mistakes is that understanding them builds compassion. Understanding others needs to start on an individual level—understanding yourself. Knowing how easy it is to make these kinds of mistakes allows us to be more compassionate when seeing others encounter the same issues.

What are the mistakes you find yourself constantly making? Drop a comment and let us know.


How Your Thoughts Change Your Brain, Cells and Genes

Every minute of every day, your body is physically reacting, literally changing, in response to the thoughts that run through your mind.


It’s been shown over and over again that just thinking about something can cause your brain to release neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that allow it to communicate with parts of itself and your nervous system. Neurotransmitters control virtually all of your body’s functions, from hormones to digestion to feeling happy, sad, or stressed.

Studies have shown that thoughts alone can improve vision, fitness, and strength. The placebo effect, as observed with fake operations and sham drugs, for example, works because of the power of thought. Expectancies and learned associations have been shown to change brain chemistry and circuitry which results in real physiological and cognitive outcomes, such as less fatigue, lower immune system reaction, elevated hormone levels, and reduced anxiety.

In The Intention Experiment: Using Your Thoughts to Change Your Life and the World, Lynne McTaggart writes:

A sizable body of research exploring the nature of consciousness, carried on for more than thirty years in prestigious scientific institutions around the world, shows that thoughts are capable of affecting everything from the simplest machines to the most complex living beings. This evidence suggests that human thoughts and intentions are an actual physical “something” with astonishing power to change our world. Every thought we have is tangible energy with the power to transform. A thought is not only a thing; a thought is a thing that influences other things.

Your Thoughts Sculpt Your Brain

Every thought you have causes neurochemical changes, some temporary and some lasting. For instance, when people consciously practice gratitude, they get a surge of rewarding neurotransmitters, like dopamine, and experience a general alerting and brightening of the mind, probably correlated with more of the neurochemical norepinephrine.


In one study, college students deeply in love were shown pictures of their sweeties, and their brains become more active in the caudate nucleus, a reward center, giving them that in-love swoon. When they stopped looking at the pictures, their reward centers went back to sleep.


What flows through your mind also sculpts your brain in permanent ways. Think of your mind as the movement of information through your nervous system, which on a physical level is all the electrical signals running back and forth, most of which is happening below your conscious awareness. As a thought travels through your brain, neurons fire together in distinctive ways based on the specific information being handled, and those patterns of neural activity actually change your neural structure.


Busy regions of the brain start making new connections with each other, and existing synapses, the connections between neurons, that experience more activity get stronger, increasingly sensitive, and start building more receptors. New synapses are also formed.

One example of this is the well-known London cab driver studies which showed that the longer someone had been driving a taxi, the larger their hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in visual-spatial memory. Their brains literally expanded to accommodate the cognitive demands of navigating London’s tangle of streets. Research has also proven the numerous benefits of meditation for your brain and shown that meditation produces measurable results, from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the “me” centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions.


Your Thoughts Program Your Cells

A thought is an electrochemical event taking place in your nerve cells producing a cascade of physiological changes. The article “How Your Thoughts Program Your Cells” explains it this way:

There are thousands upon thousands of receptors on each cell in our body. Each receptor is specific to one peptide, or protein. When we have feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, excitement, happiness or nervousness, each separate emotion releases its own flurry of neuropeptides. Those peptides surge through the body and connect with those receptors which change the structure of each cell as a whole. Where this gets interesting is when the cells actually divide. If a cell has been exposed to a certain peptide more than others, the new cell that is produced through its division will have more of the receptor that matches with that specific peptide. Likewise, the cell will also have less receptors for peptides that its mother/sister cell was not exposed to as often.

So, if you have been bombarding your cells with peptides from negative thoughts, you are literally programming your cells to receive more of the same negative peptides in the future. What’s even worse is that you’re lessening the number of receptors of positive peptides on the cells, making yourself more inclined towards negativity.


Every cell in your body is replaced about every two months. So, the good news is, you can reprogram your pessimistic cells to be more optimistic by adopting positive thinking practices, like mindfulness and gratitude, for permanent results.


Your Thoughts Activate Your Genes

You are speaking to your genes with every thought you have. The fast growing field of epigenetics is showing that who you are is the product of the things that happen to you in your life, which change the way your genes operate. Genes are actually switched on or off depending on your life experiences, and your genes and lifestyle form a feedback loop.

Your life doesn’t alter the genes you were born with. What changes is your genetic activity, meaning the hundreds of proteins, enzymes, and other chemicals that regulate your cells.

Only about 5 percent of gene mutations are thought to be the direct cause of health issues. That leaves 95 percent of genes linked to disorders acting as an influencers, which can be influenced one way or another, depending on life factors. Of course, many of these are beyond your control, like childhood events, but some are entirely within your control, such as diet, exercise, stress management, and emotional states. The last two factors are directly dependent on your thoughts.


Your biology doesn’t spell your destiny, and you aren’t controlled by your genetic makeup. Instead, your genetic activity is largely determined by your thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions. Epigenetics is showing that your perceptions and thoughts control your biology, which places you in the driver’s seat. By changing your thoughts, you can influence and shape your own genetic readout.


You have a choice in determining what input your genes receive. The more positive the input, the more positive the output of your genes. Epigenetics is allowing lifestyle choices to be directly traced to the genetic level and is proving the mind-body connection irrefutable. At the same time, research into epigenetics is also emphasizing how important positive mental self-care practices are because they directly impact our physical health.


Meditation and mindfulness put you in contact with the source of the mind-body system, giving your thoughts direct access to beneficial genetic activity which also affects how well your cells function, via the genetic activity inside the cells.


Use Your Thoughts For You

You have much more power than ever believed to influence your physical and mental realities. Your mindset is recognized by your body — right down to the genetic level, and the more you improve your mental habits, the more beneficial response you’ll get from your body. You can’t control what has happened in the past, which shaped the brain you have today, programmed your cells, and caused certain genes to switch on.

However, you do have the power in this moment and going forward to choose your perspective and behavior, which will change your brain, cells, and genes.

5 Ways You Can Use Mindfulness To Fix Your Brain, Reduce Stress And Boost Performance

1. Focus on your breathing. Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor, and spend a few minutes doing nothing but breathing slowly in and out. Focus all your attention on your breath. Feel the air travel into your mouth, down your windpipe and into your lungs. Then feel your body shift as it pushes the air out of your lungs. When thoughts surface that distract you from your breathing, don’t worry. Just let them pass, and shift your attention back to your breathing. After some practice, you should be able to spend a few to several minutes doing nothing but immersing yourself in the act of breathing, at the expense of all the other thoughts.

2. Go for a walk. You can also meditate just by going for a walk. All you need to do is focus on each step. Feel your legs move and your feet hit the ground. Focus solely on the act of walking and the sensations of your surroundings (the cool breeze, the hot sun, or the dog barking in the distance). When you feel other thoughts creeping into your mind, focus even harder on the sensation of walking. Focusing on something that’s second nature is refreshing because it alters your frame of mind as you turn off the never-ending stream of thoughts that normally dominate your attention. You can do the same thing when you brush your teeth, comb your hair, or eat a meal.

3. Feel your body. You don’t even need to stop doing what you’re doing to practice mindfulness. All you have to do is focus all of your attention on what you’re doing without thinking about why you’re doing it, what you should do next or what you should be doing. Whether it’s the gentle stroke of your fingers on the keyboard or your posture in your chair, you can direct your attention from your thoughts to your bodily sensations at the spur of the moment.

 4. Repeat one positive thing about yourself, over and over. One of the main goals of mindfulness is to stop the steam of thoughts that cycle through your mind over and over again each day. Funnily enough, a great way to do this is to choose a short, positive message about yourself and to repeat it over and over with each breath to keep your mind on track. A great phrase of choice is “I am capable.” The simplicity keeps you grounded in the exercise and keeps other thoughts from taking over. The right phrase also builds a little confidence, which never hurts.

5. Interrupt the stress cycle. Any moment when you feel stressed, overwhelmed or stuck on something is the perfect moment to practice mindfulness. Just stop what you’re doing, let the thoughts go for a moment and practice your favorite mindfulness technique (breathing, walking or focusing on body sensations). Even a few minutes of this can make a huge difference in quieting your mind and reducing stress. You’ll be surprised how reasonable things look once you’ve taken a few moments to clear your head.

Self-Help? Stop Working on Your Weakness and Focus on Your Strengths Instead

The fluctuations of your heartbeat may affect your wisdom, according to new research from the University of Waterloo.

The study suggests that heart rate variation and thinking process work together to enable wise reasoning about complex social issues. The work by Igor Grossmann, professor of psychology at Waterloo, and colleagues based at the Australian Catholic University, appears in the online journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

Their study breaks new ground in wisdom research by identifying conditions under which psychophysiology impacts wise judgment.

“Our research shows that wise reasoning is not exclusively a function of the mind and cognitive ability,” says Prof. Grossmann. “We found that people who have greater heart rate variability and who are able to think about social problems from a distanced viewpoint demonstrate a greater capacity for wise reasoning.”


The study extends previous work on cognitive underpinnings of wise judgment to include consideration how the heart’s functioning impacts the mind.

A growing consensus among philosophers and cognitive scientists defines wise judgment to include the ability to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge, to be aware of the varied contexts of life and how they may unfold over time, to acknowledge others’ points of view, and to seek reconciliation of opposing viewpoints.

The new study is the first to show that the physiology of the heart, specifically the variability of heart rate during low physical activity, is related to less biased, wiser judgment.

Human heart rate tends to fluctuate, even during steady-state conditions, such as while a person is sitting. Heart rate variability refers to the variation in the time interval between heartbeats and is related to the nervous system’s control of organ functions.

The researchers found that people with more varied heart rates were able to reason in a wiser, less biased fashion about societal problems when they were instructed to reflect on a social issue from a third-person perspective. But, when the study’s participants were instructed to reason about the issue from a first-person perspective, no relationship between heart rate and wiser judgment emerged.

“We already knew that people with greater variation in their heart rate show superior performance in the brain’s executive functioning such as working memory,” says Prof. Grossmann. “However, that does not necessarily mean these people are wiser – in fact, some people may use their cognitive skills to make unwise decisions. To channel their cognitive abilities for wiser judgment, people with greater heart rate variability first need to overcome their egocentric viewpoints.”

The study opens the door for further exploration of wise judgment at the intersection of physiological and cognitive research.

In addition,

A Heart and a Mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association between Heart Rate Variability, and Wise Reasoning

Cardiac vagal tone (indexed via resting heart rate variability – HRV) has been previously associated with superior executive functioning. Is HRV related to wiser reasoning and less biased judgments? Here, we hypothesize that this will be the case when adopting a self-distanced (as opposed to a self-immersed) perspective, with self-distancing enabling individuals with higher HRV to overcome bias-promoting egocentric impulses and to reason wisely. However, higher HRV may not be associated with greater wisdom when adopting a self-immersed perspective. Participants were randomly assigned to reflect on societal issues from a self-distanced- or self-immersed perspective, with responses coded for reasoning quality. In a separate task, participants read about and evaluated a person performing morally ambiguous actions, with responses coded for dispositional vs. situational attributions. We simultaneously assessed resting cardiac recordings, obtaining 6 HRV indicators. As hypothesized, in the self-distanced condition, each HRV indicator was positively related to prevalence of wisdom-related reasoning (e.g., prevalence of recognition of limits of one’s knowledge, recognition that the world is in flux/change, consideration of others’ opinions and search for an integration of these opinions) and to balanced vs. biased attributions (recognition of situational and dispositional factors vs. focus on dispositional factors alone). In contrast, there was no relationship between these variables in the self-immersed condition. We discuss implications for research on psychophysiology, cognition, and wisdom.

“A Heart and a Mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association between Heart Rate Variability, and Wise Reasoning” by Igor Grossmann, Baljinder K. Sahdra and Joseph Ciarrochi in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

Source: Flipboard.com