Building a better brain: The underrated key to a better life

Your world is a living expression of how you are using and have used your mind.

Earl Nightingale

Hopefully, you don’t need me to tell you this, but your brain is important.

Regardless of what you desire in life, there is value to be found in trying to better optimise your brain. One does not need to be a computer programmer, heart surgeon, or chess grandmaster to rely on the capacities of the human mind. Professions or hobbies that are considered to be “intellectual” are only a sub-portion of what we use our brains for.

When we observe pathological populations, such as those with Alzheimer’s disease, we gain an appreciation for the profitability of a well-functioning brain. It goes a long, and often under-appreciated, way to helping us live a more-optimal-than-not life. Instances of pathology give us a sobering reminder that a healthy brain is necessary for living a high-quality life. 

I am uncertain, however, about whether quality of life continues to increase with rising brain function. Possibly quality of life plateaus once a certain sufficiency of health is reached. We see this in other areas a lot — for example, happiness as it relates to income. Regardless, for the sake of today’s discussion, let us assume that brain function and quality of life correlate. At least, somewhat. Ultimately, though, you should judge for yourself whether the following information is useful and whether it is worth implementing.

What does a well-functioning brain look like?

As I said, I believe with an increase in brain function, quality of life will also increase. All other things being equal. Not because an increase in brain function causes a direct change in the frequency and/or magnitude of experienced positive emotions. Instead, I believe a more optimally functioning brain — in the sense that I am referring to — will make better decisions, thus resulting in a reduction of adverse scenarios coming to fruition. Scenarios which tend to bring many negative emotions in their wake.

I do also believe, however, that the degree to which negative emotions can motivate “rational” or adaptive behaviour — which aren’t necessarily synonymous — they will still be required. As such, we likely cannot possibly hope to rid ourselves of them entirely.

My basic thesis is that a more optimal functioning brain will experience a reduction, but not removal, of net-negative emotions. Particularly, when measured over the medium to long-term. This notion is somewhat supported by various fields of literature but, before I go any further, let me first clarify what I am not talking about when I refer to a well-functioning brain.

That is intelligence. 

I won’t belabour the point too much, as I have written on this topic already here. As a reminder, though, having a “well-functioning” brain is not the same thing as being “intelligent”. Intelligence is much more than what a single test or your academic record can say about you. You can be demonstrably “intelligent,” based on an IQ test, and still operate like an idiot throughout life — and vice versa. If you use your certified-intelligent-brain to make silly decisions, then you aren’t all that intelligent in my eyes.

Therefore, going forward, we will consider a well-functioning brain as one that comes to the correct, or most probable conclusions, given the evidence available. This is different from what IQ-tests can tell us. Subsequently, having arrived at a probable conclusion, a well-functioning brain is one that helps us act in a manner that is concordant with such a conclusion.

Ultimately, it is about making better decisions and living a better life. Anyone can fluke a high score on an exam. But when life is the exam, that’s when you really show off your skills — or lack thereof.

Whatever your starting point, though, everyone can be better. That’s what this article, and more generally this site, is about. The goal is to think, speak, behave and live in a manner that is more truthful and thoughtful than you or I ever have.

How can we improve our brains?

Let’s take an engineering style approach. We could address the problem like this: What is something that the brain is similar to? How are improvements brought about in that thing?

The brain, if it is analogous to anything, is analogous to a computer — the two share a vast number of similarities. In order to have a more optimally functioning computer, you can basically seek improvements in two categories: hardware or software.

Let’s use slightly more colloquial language, however. Let’s talk about our brains in the sense that they are built, or made up, of equipment. How they operate depends on their programming. The kinds of programming they can undergo is dependent on the equipment, but as I said here, basically all human brains approximate the standard-issue model. The equipment, however, can be cared for and maintained to greatly varying degrees.

In regards to the equipment of our brains, I’m not speaking metaphorically. I mean the literal tissue; the kind of stuff you would learn about it an anatomy & physiology class, such as nerve cells, myelin and blood vessels. In order to have a functioning brain, this stuff needs to be pretty well in order. Your brain runs on glucose and oxygen — among other things — so ensuring it gets adequate delivery of those is essential for trying to optimise it. You can’t build optimal performance (physical or mental) upon a foundation of inadequate health. 

I will dedicate an article to this topic in the future; outlining some things you should and shouldn’t do, when looking to improve the health/physiological functioning of your brain. To get you started though: Be sure to exercise and get plenty of sleep; eat a varied diet that contains lots of plant-matter; and try to avoid large amounts of alcohol or illicit drugs. If you didn’t know all of that already.

To the programming aspects of our brains, this is where things get slightly more subjective but interesting. While the physical health of one’s brain can be relatively easily determined thanks to the achievements of modern medicine, the programming of one’s cannot. The underlying code that someone implements in their perception and thinking is a lot more difficult to make definitive statements about.

A variety of views

Making statements in relation how someone thinks often requires casting judgements about someone’s world-view; how they observe and make sense of the world. This can be a contentious, and even offensive, act if done incautiously. Which should not be surprising, however, considering that your world-view is influenced by where and how you grew up, the kind of education you received, the demographics surrounding you, and any other number of factors that influence who you are.

All these things play a role in shaping the lens that we each view the world through; altering our subjective interpretations of reality. As such, it is quite the identity-assault to tell someone that they have an incorrect view of the world and their own experiences within it. 

Some world-views are undoubtedly grounded in objective principles more than others. However, if someone doesn’t value objectivity, then your critique of their world-view on that basis is pointless. In fact, it may be worse that pointless. It could seem like nothing but a personal attack.

To elaborate on this point a little more, some common base-level world-views are:

  • Naturalistic
    The physical world is all that (we can know) exists and it is governed by the laws of nature. Reality is the evolving process of cause-and-effect. This can be understood, at least partially, via objective means and scientific principles.
  • Theistic
    Both a physical and a spiritual world exists, with the physical world having been created by one (or more) infinite individual(s). Our actions in the physical world determine the punishments or rewards that we receive in our afterlife.
  • Post-Modernist
    Views the world in regards to a struggle for power. There is no objective truth. The things we observe in the social world around us were “constructed” to obtain or maintain dominance by various groups.

(I have written more about the influence of various views and their impact on rational thought here)

The antidote of naturalism

The above are but a few of all the possible world-views. Not only are there others, but also factions of each. For example, there are distinctions between naturalistic atheism and agnosticism, or monotheistic and polytheistic worldviews. The above provide a good starting point, but there exists a much wider array of ideologies that we use to interpret our own existence. Personally, I am a naturalist. Understanding this is important for comprehending what I say and the information I convey.

For instance, I believe that natural laws govern the world around us. I believe that a single, immutable reality exists somewhere amongst our varied and subjective interpretations of it and all subjective views themselves have objective and empirical explanations. Based on these assumption, the principle of cause-and-effect is who, I believe, we ultimately report to. Holding this world-view has implications from physics all the way through to social psychology.

The world can be made sense of in other ways. My stance is only that this way, the naturalistic way, helps it to make the most sense given the evidence we have.

Thus, it is my opinion that the best method for improving your existence in the world is to generate a better understanding of, and relationship with, reality. Or, phrased in the inverse manner: acting on beliefs that are discontinuous with reality ultimately leads to disappointment, confusion or a sense of hopelessness.

To the extent that this is true, a modality of thinking that values justified beliefs and discards erroneous ones will be superior for navigating life. Lies and falsehoods are destructive, irrespective of whether we tell them to no one other than ourselves.

Because of this, the cognitive-programming we wish to instil within ourselves is of a particular variant. Not all will be sufficient. The kind programming we desire is open-minded and inquisitive; yet also meticulously logical and scientific. We shall be constantly striving for thinking that is analytical, but not arrogant. Critical and creative, but not cocksure. Sceptical, but not stubborn.

It is this style of thinking which so few of us are taught — or even recognise is important to study — that I believe will yield superior life-outcomes. It is not easily achieved, but consistent effort to improve our mental maps, and the modelling software we employ, will result in this being achieved over time.

That is how I think, in the most general sense, that a better brain can lead to a better life. As the neuroscience-trained philosopher Sam Harris put it:

“[The mind] is the only tool you really have, it is what you take with you in any situation in life. It is what determines how you respond to emotional stress, physical pain and every other difficulty you encounter. It is the basis of every decision you make and every interaction you have with other people.”

Because of this, ensuring we develop minds that are conducive to the type of life we want to live is of the utmost importance. I implore you to begin undertaking the improvement of yours.

As I outlined above, my recommendation for doing this takes a two-prong approach.

The first addresses the “equipment” of the brain and making improvements to its health and function by ensuring adequate delivery of nutrients and removal of waste products.

The second involves improving the programs that are run on the equipment. For this, I recommend adopting a scientific worldview and cognitive-style, as this is what will allow you to understand reality to the most accurate degree. In my estimations, this will lead you down a path of predictably, allowing for greater flourishing than any other alternative that I’m currently aware of.

Your brain really is an incredible organ and is what makes you what you are. In order for you to be better, and generate a better life for yourself and those you care about, you must start improving that thing in your head that governs it all.

I am fascinated by the power of knowledge; in particular, how through its implementation we can build a better life for ourselves and others. Most specifically, I am interested in ideas related to rationality and morality. I believe we can all be benefited by having a concern for both probability as well as people. As a student, I am studying Artificial Intelligence. As a professional, I work in mental health case management. When I am not doing one of these things, I am very likely writing for my blog, recording an episode for the "PhilosophyAu" podcast, hanging out with my nan, reading a book or, occasionally, attending a rave. A previous version of myself obtained a bachelors and a masters degree in sport science and was the Manager of Educational Services for a leading health and fitness company.

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