What Makes Your Brain Happy (and Why We Do Stupid Things With Our Health)

Monday Jun 29 | BY |
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WhatMakesYourBrainHappy

I’m currently reading a book with an interesting title (and most interesting content): What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do The Opposite. It’s a book that summarizes the latest research in neuroscience regarding how our brains process information. One topic that I found particularly fascinating is the so-called “confirmation bias.”

In a nutshell, our brains crave certainty.

We want to live in a world that is predictable and therefore, we seek validation everywhere.

We want to feel that there is some consistency in the way we live our lives.

We actually feel good when we feel right. When our beliefs are threatened, we often act irrationally and refuse the evidence that is placed in front of us.

An example from the book:

A well-trained psychologist falls into the trap placed by the self-help movement with books, such as The Secret, that lead her to believe that if she thinks about something long enough it will happen in her life. If she wants a nice car like a BMW, she will eventually materialize it. So she begins by placing images of the desired car on her fridge and now she sees it everywhere, and this reinforces her belief that this system of positive thinking is working. In reality, her brain is looking for the car everywhere and seeing it where she was not previously seeing it.

Another example taken from the book is about a group of martial arts who believe in an uncanny ability called Kiai. According to their beliefs, someone with this ability (the Kiai Master) cannot be defeated. One such Kiai Master feels undefeatable and posts videos of his students attempting to challenge him. He’s so convinced in his beliefs and his students are so convinced in their beliefs that this magical gift exists, that he actually goes on live television challenging anyone to beat him against a reward of $5,000. To make a long story short, a mixed martial artist easily beat the guy but that fact alone is not enough to seriously challenge the belief of the believers, as they find ways to explain the defeat.

This reminds me of people who believed in the breatharian, abilities of certain humans. For example, Jasmuheen, an Australian woman, who made quite a name for herself selling the idea of breatharianism, was challenged by a national Australian television team. “Show us that you can actually be a breatharian.” This was a total failure and it was filmed on live television, but it was not enough to challenge her belief in her ability to be a breatharian and her believers also were not the least disturbed by this revelation on live television.

So, why do we do this?

Why do we, when we are presented with conflicting evidence, seek ways to explain it away? This is the confirmation bias.

Our brains seeks certainty and receives pleasure out of certainty. If we admit that we are wrong, this could prove that the world is an uncertain place. This is very threatening.

A lot of complex factors are at play and neuroscientists are discovering how this process actually works.

This leads me to an example relevant to Renegade Health: an article that I found on a paleo blog called “My battle with high cholesterol and what I’m doing about it.”

To summarize the article, the author is a Paleo follower and goes to a doctor to get her blood tests and sees a comment by the doctor that ends with “ASAP.” You don’t want to receive a message from a doctor with the words ASAP attached to it.

As it turns out, her cholesterol is through the roof: 327mg by decilitre. Even more troubling was her LDL: 205, which is extremely high.

Her article attempts to rationalize this:

“How could this be? I am a 48-year-old woman. I eat no processed food, sugar, or grains. I sleep well. I’m not chronically stressed and I’m not dealing with any major life stressors. I weigh 125 pounds. Was I ready to be put on Statins possibly for the rest of my life?”

Then she talks about the research that she’s doing in order to solve this issue.

“I read an article on cholesterol at Mark’s Daily Apple and the podcast transcript of a very similar case to mine over at Robb Wolf.” 

The author is doing “research,” but the “research” she’s doing is only within her circle of believers. She’s not actually looking at what the real research says.

Then the rest of the article deals with her internal struggle with this issue.

She doesn’t want to be put on drugs but she doesn’t want to give up the Paleo diet and it ends with a curious statement:

“This might seem counterintuitive given that my cholesterol situation has worsened, at least on paper, since I adopted this lifestyle…” 

Essentially, she’s saying that this fact of the situation deepens her commitment to Paleo.

“Instead I’m going to tweak how I apply Paleo principles as Marxism described to me in a recent email about the future of Paleo I see it growing in scope.” 

She’s talking about adding even more fish, more beef, and more chicken to her diet, and then goes on about the rest of her action plan for this.

Now, I hate to pick on someone who writes such a personal article, but I needed to bring it to your attention because when someone blogs about a health issue, it’s fair game. They’re also influencing people and perhaps a lot of people might be influenced in the wrong way.

My outsider perspective on this and what most doctors actually would say: her high cholesterol is not due to stress levels, but due to all of the fish, chicken, beef, and eggs that she’s eating. So, committing even deeper to a Paleo diet will just make things worse.

This is confirmation bias at its finest.

It’s easy to criticize others. In fact, my own confirmation bias made me seek a paleo article in the first place, because I hold a negative opinion of this diet.

So this leads me to wonder: in how many aspects of my life am I doing this in?

It’s important to be aware of this confirmation bias, even though it’s probably impossible to prevent it completely. That’s why we need to seek unbiased markers to track our health.

Blood tests are important because they present us with evidence of how our diet is affecting our health.

One blood test is not everything, by the way. It’s just a snapshot of what’s happening in the moment.

When we get a couple of blood tests in a row that show a pattern, it is time to take notice.

This is just hard science.

A diet that drives your cholesterol through the roof is not a healthy diet, and researching what other bloggers have to say on the topic is not doing your research properly.

In how many aspects of life do we do this? How many times do we refuse to believe the truth because our brain craves certainty?

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

12 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. Frederic: Everyone is different. I am an omnivore, 71 years old, with excellent triglycerides, HDL and LDL are reasonably close to the allopathic “ideal.” By angiogram before major heart surgery (not a bi-pass) for a genetic condition, the test result said “zero plaque” in my arteries. My cholesterol has never been over 240 and when I have used red rice yeast, it has lowered to 180. My particle size is large and fluffy, the kind that do not stick to the arteries. As you already know, the “cholesterol myth” causes many to take statins out of fear. Inflammation is the cause of high cholesterol. Yes, meat consumption can raise cholesterol along with stress and other unhealthy habits but supposedly only 10% of our cholesterol comes from food. The rest is produced naturally by the body and stress will elevate it. In fact, low cholesterol is associated with cancer. My husband and I do not eat junk or processed food, all produce is organic, all “flesh” is humanely raised and without hormones or antibiotics and our portions are small. In the entire animal kingdom which includes us, there are prey and predators. We are part of that animal kingdom. We eat quinoa, brown rice, seeds and nuts. We have eaten organic, free-range eggs from humanely raised chickens nearly five days of every week for nearly 40 years. I will repeat, everyone is different. I believe that humans are omnivores and that some thrive on that diet and others thrive on a vegan or ova-lacto vegetarian diet. I continue to read and learn what I can and always will. Thank you and Kevin for all your information and articles. PS – We eat a lot of fresh/raw and lightly steamed vegetables, also peas, beans and lentils. My heart condition has nothing to do with diet or lifestyle; it is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy formerly with a large muscular obstruction that was surgically removed to save my life. Yes, the SAD diet is sad indeed and that’s why we eat differently. All good wishes, Anne in Seattle, WA

    • Christina says:

      I totally agree with Anne. Working for 15 years in a health food store and attending seminars and lectures–I have seen this cholesterol myth debunked over and over.

  2. Ariel says:

    Great article Frederic.
    I agree completely.

    Xx

  3. Rebecca says:

    I have been on a Ketogenic diet for 3 years and my blood and other tests are perfect. I have gotten rid of many syndromes with the Ketogenic diet. I feel great. It may not be for everyone…but neither is a vegetarian diet. everyone has different chemistry. I agree with Anne Foster Angelou. That is also hard science.

  4. Robin says:

    Thank you, Frederic for your progressive insight and the courage to call out this type of behavior. I applaud you for this! Wishing you continued success and blessings…

  5. Christina says:

    This article was very interesting as to why some people just do not want to see the truth, even in politics and nothing you can say will change their mind.
    However, your statements on diet and cholesterol have been proven over the years to be a myth.This is my opinion after many years of research, seminars etc. As Richard Passwater said in a lecture at Health Expo many years ago, your cholesterol number is unique to you, just as you are born with blue eyes or brown eyes or big feet or small feet. Your brain needs cholesterol to operate especially as your senior years come up. In my family, first thing the doctors did with someone being diagnosed with alzeheimers was to take her off statins .
    In my immediate family, my husband & I ate the same diet for years consisting of high fat goats milk, eggs every morning, ice cream (not me) every night and dinners of meat. His cholesterol number stayed consistent at 165 and mine was always in the 200’s. Our 3 daughters are on the high side too. Checking with friends who are married and eating the same way comes up with the same result–one of the spouses are low and one high.

  6. Liz B says:

    A true statement (confirmation bias) used to present a popularly believed (because it’s intensely taught by statin drug pushers) but dangerously false (read the studies! statins cause lots of prolemsshorten your life) medical theory (“cholesterol is from what you eat”) –that does not surprise me. What startles me is seeing Renegade Health encourage this disdain for Mark’s Daily Apple and Renegade Health pushing the scientific nonsense that what you eat significantly affects your cholesterol.

    Besides, high cholesterol is not a problem. “people whose blood cholesterol is low become just as atherosclerotic as people whose cholesterol is high.” http://www.ravnskov.nu/cholesterol.htm If your arteries are getting clogged the problem is probably leaky arteries begging for cholesterol bandaids. Get off all sugars and refined grains and your arteries will probably become healthy again.

    Even the heart associations are admitting the link between sugar and heart disease. “Excess sugar consumption is associated with adverse health effects including heart disease,10-12 stroke,10 obesity,13-17 diabetes,18-22 high blood cholesterol,23-24 cancer25 and dental caries (cavities).26” http://www.heartandstroke.com/site/c.ikIQLcMWJtE/b.9201361/k.47CB/Sugar_heart_disease_and_stroke.htm

    BTW, I don’t read Mark’s Daily Apply, I do read recent NIH and other studies. The author of this book should do likewise. Just for him, I link an easy to read article from Harvard Med. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-too-much-added-sugar-increases-the-risk-of-dying-with-heart-disease-201402067021

    Here’s Ravnskov’s book free: the cholesterol myth.

  7. Mintie says:

    This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read!!!!
    I am a vegan who is finally considering options, due to my health!
    Thank you for these great words of wisdom.
    Mint

  8. Another great article! Of course, we all see evidence of confirmation bias in the world all the time, but it very eye-opening to apply this to ourselves and ask, “When am I doing this?” I really enjoy an article that not only makes me think but makes me get honest about myself. You nailed it Frederic!

  9. Happy Monkey says:

    Hi Fredric,

    Thanks for bringing this book to our attention. It’s fun to see several of the commenters seem to fall right into the Need for Certainty as they “fight back” with their “certain” knowledge that you are just wrong. Funny that they can’t say, “Maybe I’m wrong”.

  10. Liz says:

    Interesting Fred, that even while recognising your own confirmation bias, you go on to quote an example that confirms your bias!! 🙂

    The tenor of your article is valid, and certainly explains why it is almost impossible to convince someone of an opposing point of view. People stubbornly hold onto their beliefs, don’t give them up without a huge struggle, and resent the efforts of others to present evidence to the contrary. It is no wonder there are so many courses that try to teach you to speak persuasively!!

    Liz

  11. christian says:

    Whats interesting is that we see this in the overall health community right?

    We also have people who are restricting their overall view of health to their specific dietary dogmas and refuse to think, research and look outside the box.

    Ultimately what it comes down to is if your getting numbers that high, then there is something wrong with your A. lifestyle, B. your diet, or C. both.

    To not be open to consideration is suicide. And to continue the same thing moving forward is insanity.

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