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Our brains spit out behavior. Faced with uncertainty, our brains make calculations based on knowledge and experience about what’s best to do next. But brains need good information to make good decisions, and a problem arises when distortions inform those calculations, causing us to make choices that are not safe. Think of these distortions as “brain bubbles.” Poverty, for example, can lead to brain bubbles due to restricted opportunities.
In Hollywood, power and fame create brain bubbles because people around the powerful and famous are less likely to tell them the truth. When the bubble bursts — which happens in the fast-changing entertainment industry — they’re not well equipped to deal with anxiety.
Anxiety can be a force of good. It keeps us dialed in to what’s happening around us, enabling us to navigate change as it comes. Anxiety is a biological challenge that, in short bursts, is critical for survival because it keeps brains “plastic,” to where the circuitry is not fixed, but can adapt.
Too much acquiescence, too much routine, allows the brain to become comfortable. People stop scanning the environment to see what’s changing. When they are faced with uncertainty, the induced anxiety is likely to be crippling — and that may in turn lead to helplessness, which is toxic to the brain.
I have looked at what impacts neuroplasticity by studying rats. Rats are smartly opportunistic creatures, like us. My rats love Froot Loops. I bury Loops under a hill of bedding and let them dig them up. These are rats that perform better when confronted with new situations; challenge makes them resilient. Other rats are given Loops (the “trust fund rats,” I call them); their reward is not effort-based, and they don’t present the same resilience when conditions change. Experience has not created healthy pathways in their brains, and that puts them at a disadvantage.
The game-changing lesson from rats is that we can influence our brain circuitry. We don’t have to be victims of change but can train ourselves, all along the way, to ride it. Here are three easy ways to prime your brain:
1. Expose yourself to honest feedback.
Yes-men are literally bad for the brain. Cultivate friends and colleagues who will tell it like it is, not just say what you want to hear, because their framing will help ground you.
2. Engage in off-duty effort-based rewards.
From cooking to car mechanics, as long as you value the outcome of your efforts, you can increase resilience.
3. Embrace the unfamiliar.
Travel somewhere new, read a book on a subject you’re unfamiliar with. The hippocampus deals with spatial relationships and is where new brain cells are made. Don’t allow your brain to take your world for granted.
University of Richmond professor Kelly Lambert, Ph.D., is the author of Well-Grounded: The Neurobiology of Rational Decisions, out this September.
This story first appeared in the July 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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