Reflecting on Life While Reading about Brains

One of the books I’ve been reading has been an exciting look at how the mind thinks. It’s called, Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. I suppose it’s not everyone’s “cup of tea,” but it’s validated a few things I have been told over the years.

Has anyone ever told you that you need to laugh more or smile more or just project a happier persona and you’ll be happier? Yeah, I always thought that was a bit outlandish, but it turns out science backs this up. In this book Daniel describes multiple experiments where people were instructed to hold pencils in their mouth in one of two ways. One way forced the participants to smile, while the other forced frowns. And guess what, the participants with a forced smile reported a happier mood and a more positive outlook on life.

The next thing that I found pertained to my childhood. I grew up in NY and if you’re not familiar with their testing system, well, there are a lot of standardized tests every year in every subject you an imagine. My mother felt particularly bad about all the testing so she would send my sisters and I with a bag of bulk candy. Pretty much everyones dream. She would tell me it was to help me do better on the tests, but I had no idea how that could be. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I wasn’t going to argue. Well, now that I am reading through this book it seems my mother’s method has some validation. It seems that physical or mental strain can wear our brains out. Just being happy (about say a large bag of candy) can even improve how we score on tests.

Daniel explains that there are two ways that our brain works, one is more intuition and the other is more what you would consider traditional thinking or calculating. The brain is a lazy machine and wants to use patterns and learned shortcuts to process information, but to do this well it can’t be fatigued. The research in this book outlined how students could answer about 80% of questions posed correctly using only this type of thinking, unless they had been fatigued. The group that had fatigued brains performed no better than selecting answers by chance. So, in a round-a-bout way, by providing me with candy during a test my mother was making sure my brain had all the glucose it needed to stay active during testing.

More interestingly though, we could expand this out as the reason children from disadvantaged backgrounds perform poorly in school. Brain fatigue can be caused by lots of things, physical labor, trying to work through a complex problem, or stress. You can guarantee that in poor households there is a lot of stress. When I was growing up I realized that I couldn’t focus on homework at home. This meant that if I wanted to complete my homework assignments I had the hour or so of my bus ride to do them or I could do them in between class and sports. Teachers always were hammering me about my homework! It was probably the lowest part of my grade in any given class until I moved out of my parents house.

Anyway, there was another interesting point that I came across here. It relates to my job and advertising. If you don’t know I work analyzing the performance of banner ads online. I have been doing this for a few years now and something I found really surprised me. The last product I promoted I decided I wanted to getting into the heads of consumers and figure out what made them buy. I spent some time combing through a lot of data, and plenty of things didn’t make sense. Such as, no matter what the product was, it seemed like the afternoon to the earlier hours of the morning, ads were more effective. I never had a good reason for why that was. I just accepted it and moved on.

In this book, there is a section that goes on to explain how the brain creates the shortcuts of association that it likes to use. I hypothesis that this could explain why ads are more effective during these hours. The brain struggles to make associations when it is fatigued. That might not be a surprise, but just how poorly it makes these associations is. You see, Daniel’s research suggests that the fatigued brains could not un-learn the false statements they had been provided. Even when told that a sentence was false, the participants believed it to be true.

Just picture someone coming home from a long day of work (or browsing the web after a rough morning) and seeing an ad. They may not spend a lot of time looking or thinking about the ad, but their brain is absorbing and trying to make sense of all of their surroundings regardless if they are aware or not. I impinge it’s the fatigued brain making the ads more effective, though I haven’t done any tests myself.

If you haven’t guessed, I’m in love with this book so it’s highly likely I’ll be posting again about it. Of course, I recommend it to anyone looking for a good summer read about how the brain works.






  1. furioussd

    I guess I’ll have to start forcing a smile more. Maybe customers will like me better!

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