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Ways that Our Brain Confuses and Fools Us

Ways that Our Brain Confuses and Fools Us


"Humans have three different minds, each with a mind of its own.”
-- Ronald Brill, Brain Works Project director

Confusing physical and emotional pain

Brain imaging research shows the same part of our brain senses when we have physical or emotional pain. This explains how reptilian survival (our “fighting”) brain takes control over our thinking (or figuring out) brain when we’re upset and our feelings are hurt. An emotional wound may cause us to hide or attack, just like a reptile would do when it is physically threatened.

Ambivalence: Holding opposite feelings at the same time about someone or something

Adolescence is a time when we have lots of emotional brain changes that lead to having mixed feelings such as both loving and hating our parents; or being undecided if you like and dislike another person. Ambivalence causes brain confusion because we don't know which of the two different feelings we have is "true." Actually both are. But our brain has a tough time deciding what to do when we have opposite feelings about the same person or thing. This uncertainty actually adds to our stress, particularly during adolescence when our emotional brain is becoming more sensitive; our reptilian brain is more "on guard"; while our neocortex struggles to adjust to these confusing changes in our coping brain.

Optical illusions

Illusions are examples of how our brain becomes confused by seeing different things when looking at something we've not seen before. This happens because our thinking brain memory pieces together past experiences to decide what things mean to us by keying on certain visual clues (or short cuts). These clues are actually kept in brain circuits called neural networks. These networks act like shortcuts that help us quickly identify, and respond to what we are seeing and experiencing. For example, walking at night in a part of town we’ve never visited before we see in the shadows what looks like a huge bear moving toward us. But after neocortex reasons that bears don’t come near our neighborhood we decide not to immediately run away. We look closer and finally see the “bear” is just a large shrub being blown by the wind. In the case of optical illusions, our brain is confused by several different clues stored in our visual memory bank that help us to figure out what we are really seeing. When it comes to sensing our feelings, we also use our entire coping brain memory to understand if someone or something is a threat to us. Since our two instinctive (reptilian and emotional) coping brains’ impulses fire off much faster than the neocortex works, we may often react to an upsetting or threatening experience instinctively until our thinking brain has the time to figure out and name what the possible “threat” might be. This is why both young and older children, who haven’t learned mature coping skills, sometimes act impulsively. Those impulses often cause us to overact because neocortex hasn’t yet learned to take charge of our coping response.

Suggested class project: Find optical illusions in books and on the Internet so your class can make a display of them in your classroom. It’s fun to see how many ways our brain is so easily confused. This exhibit also demonstrates how people looking at the same image may see something different. Some good websites for finding optical illusions are:

  Optical Illusions 4 Kids
  Akiyoshi's Illusion Pages

The Power of Suggestion: Placebo Effect (pronounced pluh-SEE-bo)

Medical doctors, mental health professionals and hypnotists know that our minds are often influenced by just the suggestion that a natural food or medicine will provide relief from pain. A suggestion that a new medicine, pill or injection will make me feel better, have less pain, or reduce worry and anxiety may result in our actual sense of relief. Advertising sells products often because it uses this same power of suggestion creating a placebo effect by claiming that buying and using a certain shampoo, perfume, deodorant or wearing a type of clothing will make you a more popular or desirable person. (See the "Resources & Activities" section classroom exercise "Advertising Analysis Project.")

Medical researchers have found that hypnosis can reduce the amount of pain and anesthesia [drugs that keep us from feeling pain] needed during or after surgery by decreasing the patient’s anxiety and stress. Hypnosis, like placebo, uses the “power of suggestion” that can even help us to change certain habits or types of behavior like over-eating. We can also use meditation, deep relaxation and other methods to reduce our fear and stress.
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