Harrison’s new book explores the brain, faulty thinking

| 12/11/2015
Cayman News Service

Guy P. Harrison

(CNS): Former Cayman Islands journalist Guy Harrison’s latest book, Good Thinking: What you need to know to be smarter, safer, wealthier, and wiser, is a homage to the human brain, but it also explores why we need to nurture them and learn how to use them properly in order to be less prone to making dumb decisions. Harrison, a lifelong champion of critical thinking and skepticism, recently talked to CNS about the wonders of the brain as well as serious problems caused by the absence of “good thinking” worldwide. This includes the Cayman Islands, where, he said, he has been told of such fantasies as prophetic dreams, end-of-the-world predictions, demonic possessions, obeah curses and psychic visions.

CNS: What is the goal of your new book?

GH: I want to help people fall in love with their magnificent brains. I want them to appreciate it more, care for it, and use it well. I want everyone to understand more about how we think and recognize why it is necessary to doubt, to question everything, and be willing to change one’s mind when evidence demands it. This is good for the individual and good for the world. Unfortunately, very few realize just how easy it is to fall for hollow claims and believe ridiculous things. A normal, healthy human brain struggles to separate truth from fiction in many circumstances. This is a standard human problem. It’s universal. We all are highly vulnerable to the persuasive powers of subconscious biases, tradition, emotions, authority figures, and so on. No one is immune or safe. But the brain is not only a problem, of course, it’s the solution, too.

“Good thinking” is my umbrella term for understanding and using the brain in ways that enable one to live a more rational, reality based life. This book shows how to put up a respectable defense against all the lies and nonsense that are out there waiting to snare us every day. I cover the structure and function of the human brain, how to apply critical thinking in daily life, key nutritional and exercise requirements for the brain, the constant influence of the subconscious mind, weird and unexpected ways the brain interprets reality, and more. I interviewed many leading scientists and explored a ton of scientific studies. It was hard work but also a lot of fun. Researching the human brain is exciting. The more you learn about this amazing three-pound blob of electrochemical magic, the more you want to know.

CNS: What motivated you to write this book?

Good Thinking by Guy Harrison, front coverGH: Look around, our world is a mess. Each day, billions of dollars are squandered, many suffer, some die, and all for lack of good thinking. When I was a child I assumed that the adults who ran the world were sensible and knew what they were doing. When I grew up I soon realized just how wrong I was about that. For all our wonderful accomplishments, one could make a very strong case that humankind is nuts. Mozart’s music, walking on the Moon, and smart phones don’t excuse all our ludicrous, wasteful, and harmful beliefs. Most of this self-inflicted pain and loss can be easily avoided. Poor critical thinking is our great unacknowledged crisis. It’s low-hanging fruit we overlook when trying to improve the world. I’ve traveled through six continents. I’ve interviewed the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, the educated and the illiterate. No strata is spared. Absurdities and fraud are the normal human landscape. Everywhere, people tend to believe first and ask questions never. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better.

CNS: What can we do to help keep our brains healthy and functioning well?

GH: I cover this in some detail in the book. Good nutrition, physical activity, sufficient sleep, and lifelong learning are the keys to brain health and performance. Good brain nutrition it not complicated. Forget expensive pills and exotic supplements. The brain needs leafy green vegetables, berries, nuts, fruit, and high-quality proteins such as salmon. Cut way, way back on the added sugar. That stuff is bad for the brain, short term and long term. Physical activity is vital. As little as 30 minutes of somewhat vigorous exercise, five or six days per week, makes a huge difference to the brain. We now know that exercise stimulates the brain to grow new neurons. And more neurons generally equate to a healthier brain. Pause and think about this: A bit of walking, running, swimming, or cycling grows your brain!

Sleep is also extremely important. Stop thinking of it as mere rest. Sleep is a busy time of maintenance and restructuring for the brain. Finally, we all need to be lifelong students. Never stop learning new things. Tackling a new language, for example, builds new neural connections and networks. Learning to juggle or play a musical instrument is like pouring fertilizer on the brain. The science is clear about what we need to do for the most important part of us: Eat smart, move and sweat, get enough sleep, and keep learning.

CNS: What should we know about memory and vision?

GH: Most people just have no idea how we actually see and remember things. Studies confirm this. Everyone needs to know that we can’t rely on vision or memory when something important is at stake. For example, we don’t really “see” the reality around us. The brain presents us with a version of that reality that is influenced by assumptions, beliefs, and present needs. Memory is even more challenging. Most people think our brains record and play back experiences like some kind of organic DVR system. This is not how it works. The brain constructs a memory based on bits of information. In effect it tells you a story about your past. And, like most storytellers, it edits, embellishes, rearranges time lines, and sometimes lies. It can be disturbing to realize it, but confidence in a memory means nothing. Every eyewitness account of a flying saucer, an angel, the Loch Ness Monster, or a murder should be evaluated in light of what science has revealed about the brain.

CNS: Why is rational thinking so difficult for us? Why do so many dubious beliefs persist?  

GH: One reason is that we are relying on prehistoric brains to get us through our complicated modern lives. Anatomically, there is little to no difference between the brains of humans today and the brains of humans who roamed Africa more than 100,000 years ago. The brain in your head right now evolved to enable its host to eat, find mates, and avoid predators. These were the overwhelming priorities for our ancestors. The concrete, plastic, high-tech, and socially intricate societies of today are very new to us. We are like aliens who have been dropped into a strange, new world and, understandably, we struggle to cope with it. The point of my book is that we can do much better by understanding where our brains come from, how they work, what the limitations are, and how to think scientifically.

CNS: What about the Cayman Islands in regards to ‘good thinking’? How are we doing?

GH: Terrible! I’ve heard it all in Cayman: prophetic dreams, bogus cancer cures, end-of-the-world predictions, demonic possessions, obeah curses, hollow Earth, psychic visions, and so on. But this is to be expected because Caymanian society is made up of human beings. Wherever there are people, one finds this stuff. Great Britain, for example, could be described as one of the world’s most sophisticated societies but medical quackery is an epidemic there. Newton, Darwin, and the Royal Society notwithstanding, forty percent of British adults believe in haunted houses. The United States leads the world in science research and yet nearly half of American adults think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. This is no less goofy than claiming that the distance between Los Angeles and New York City is twenty feet. Astrology belief is through the roof in India. And nearly a fourth of all Canadian adults are convinced that mediums carry on two-way conversations with dead people. This problem transcends national borders and cultural flavors. I stress in my book that intelligence and academic accomplishments do not guarantee good thinking. Many smart and highly educated people in the Cayman Islands and throughout the world believe outlandish claims. This is only human. It comes with the territory, which is why we all need to consciously embrace and apply good thinking.

CNS: Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future of humankind?

GH: I’m hopeful, but deeply concerned. This could go either way for us. Right now there are some people who strive to live a reality based life. They want to be burdened by the fewest lies and delusions possible so that they can be more productive, more efficient, and safer. Then there are those who cling stubbornly to ideas that are not supported by logical arguments or sufficient evidence. They willingly blind themselves and throttle back their brains to the point of diminishing their lives and also harming or even killing others in many cases. Meanwhile, there are those people who dwell somewhere in the middle. They don’t want to suffer bad decisions and foolish beliefs, but they have not committed themselves to good thinking either. As a result, they stumble many times. They waste time and resources in ways that could have been avoided. I suspect that our collective future may depend on which way this middle mass leans in the coming decades. Will we be a mostly silly and sleepwalking species forever? Will we eventually destroy ourselves in the name of some half-baked belief? Or will we wake up and finally begin to fulfill the limitless potential of more than seven billion brains? I hope it’s the latter.


For more information about Guy Harrison’s work, visit his website at www.guypharrison.com . Guy is an “expert blogger” for Psychology Today at www.psychologytoday.com/blog/about-thinking and his Amazon author page is at www.amazon.com/author/guypharrison


Category: Books, Language

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