Dean Burnett thinks you’re an idiot. Well, at least, he thinks your brain is.
In calling the brain an idiot, Burnett performs a kind of service: squashing the misconception that the brain is insurmountable.
“Everyone sees it as this daunting, majestic, very complex, almost unknowable thing,” says the Wales-based comedian and lecturer. “I didn’t want to write one of these reverential brain books. I don’t think the brain is some sort of perfect object. (The Idiot Brain is) an attempt to puncture the mystique of the brain, which is more helpful than cynical.”
That’s what got me into the brain in the first place. I was thinking, “Why am I different than my nearest and dearest?” I haven’t really found a good answer, but I did pick up a lot of brain books along the way. It’s worth asking questions about yourself, I suppose.
So you think the brain is not so complicated after all?
The brain in general, yes, not specific people.
So it’s not specific to idiots?
No (laughs). I’ve been accused of that. It’s the brain as a thing, not someone’s brain.
That’s pretty much it. Anyone in a high-flying field — it’s particularly prone to women in male-dominated fields — there’s something called “impostor syndrome,” whereby no matter how high they advance in the ranks, they assume they’re just bluffing. They’re just getting away with it whereas everyone else around them knows exactly what they’re doing. But there are also plenty of incredibly talented people who are incredibly patronizing and smug.
Is it possible then to resist the brain’s tendency toward idiocy?
Yes, actually. A lot of people have asked if I’m trying to write a self-help book in that regard. It could sort of be used that way. It’s different from a self-help book in that I don’t actually tell anyone what to do at any point. I don’t say “This is how you fix that.” I just give you the knowledge you need to appreciate what’s happening. If you’re consciously aware of it you should, or could, be able to compensate for it.
They like it because it makes people understandable. Myers-Briggs suggests you can put people into boxes, manage by numbers or calculations, and they should behave in certain set patterns. Even if you do a Myers-Briggs test in an interview, people are smart enough to get around it. They ask you, “Are you a good team player?” Of course you say yes. There’s not actually any science to it. It doesn’t have any basis in what we could call scientific reality.
I’m sort of stuck with my own (laughs). No real plans or possibilities to change it. I’m looking into a second (book) with the publishers; lots of ideas being thrown around. Hopefully the next one I’ll expand a certain area a bit more rather than just try to cover everything.
Our brains are alcohol-dependent, narcissistic and adrenalin-addicted smart alecks that like to play games on us. These are just a few of the idiotic traits Burnett lays out in The Idiot Brain.
Do you remember doing better in that foot race or job interview than you actually did in reality? It might by your brain trying to motivate you. Since we remember everything from our own perspective, the brain constructs an “egocentric” memory.
“It’s not that we’re lying,” says Burnett. “It’s just that’s how our brain decides to tweak things to sort of give us a better self opinion, improve our self-worth.”
The “hair of the dog” hangover solution might be advised if you need to remember something important. Alcohol can improve your memory in some cases. When a new memory is formed, it’s not just one piece of information that is logged, but “the entire context in which the memory was acquired that is remembered too,” says Burnett. You might remember something more easily when “you are as drunk as you were when you first made that memory.” Drink responsibly.
Horror movie junkies be warned: your wiring might be mixed up. “There seems to be a certain personality type called ‘thrill seekers,’ ” says Burnett. Where one person needs a safer and more mainstream thrill, some will seek out horror films and skydiving for theirs.
“They become too used to it. They start experiencing certain thrills and become hooked to the adrenalin rush,” he says. “One argument is that they have a different network of neurons which process pleasure and stimulation.”
Being smart can be a burden in the brain. More intelligent people are often aware of how little they know and sometimes lack confidence. “They call it the Dunning-Kruger effect, that people who are unintelligent don’t realize that they are unintelligent,” says Burnett. “Therefore say and do things which look ridiculous on the outside, but they do them with extreme confidence because they don’t know any better.”
This one, Burnett attests, isn’t easy to measure in a lab. “One of the least fun places you can go to is a laboratory to take part in an experiment. Scientists aren’t really good at instilling fun in people,” he jokes.
But time does seem to fly when you’re engaged in what’s going on around you and aren’t paying attention to the passage of time. “If you’re somewhere boring like a doctor’s waiting room, there’s a lot less stimulation going on. That occupies more of your brain space.”
The seventh sense
Forget the sixth sense — what about a seventh, eighth or ninth? There are actually many secondary senses processed in the brain to detect the outside world. One is called “proprioception,” an awareness of where we are in space. If you make a fist behind your back, you don’t have to see your hand to know you’re making a fist. Others scientists consider detection of temperature and even pain to be senses.