Follow Your Bliss
Brain Fitness for Hedonists
“No pain, no gain.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
The idea that something must be at least a little unpleasant for it to be good for you has become accepted wisdom. So much so that its corollary - the idea that things that feel good to us are probably not good for us - is also one now commonly held.
So, in order to better ourselves, we must suffer.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider the origins of our feelings of pain and pleasure. Namely, that those feelings are a) generated by our brain and b) intended to encourage us to do more of the things that are good for us (pleasure) and less of the things that aren’t (pain).
Yet, as mentioned, the accepted wisdom is that the situation is now reversed. We’ll refer to this reversal as the “pain-pleasure inversion”.
So, how do we explain the pain-pleasure inversion? How on earth have we come to believe that the most complex and advanced structure in the known universe, the human brain, is motivating us to do things to hasten its own demise. That it’s either a bumbling idiot or a self destructive, pathological liar?
There are likely multiple factors that have landed us here. The psychological and sociological factors fueling our collective hangups around pain and pleasure are probably enough to justify a dedicated liberal arts department.
But there are a couple of phenomenon contributing to our pain-pleasure inversion that I think are most relevant for our purposes here.
The first of these is HORMESIS.
Hormesis is the biological phenomenon in which our body’s adaptation to something stressful (in the physiological sense) in the short term leads to health benefits in the long term. Exercise is often considered a prototypical example. In the short term, exercise does things like depletes precious energy stores, tears muscle fibers, provokes inflammation, and causes oxidative damage. In many respects, the physiology of someone after a bout of exercise resembles someone who is acutely ill. In the short term, then, exercise is a threat to our survival.
The benefits from it come from how our body responds to that stress. Realizing it needs to be better prepared for the next bout of exercise, our body devotes resources to improving the capabilities of those physiological systems. Those stress-induced adaptations in turn enhance our ability to handle future stressors, producing a net positive benefit over the long term.
But hormesis is not a universal phenomenon. For example, I have confirmed that even small amounts of needle jabbing in your eye is unequivocally bad for you.
Hormesis is noteworthy precisely because it is the exception to the rule - that rule being that things we find unpleasant should be avoided (see aforementioned needle-jabbing experiments).
The second factor contributing to our pain-pleasure inversion is MISMATCH. The mismatch between the world we live in today and the one our brain evolved to manage.
It is when our brain is presented with mismatched, or “evolutionarily novel” stimuli, that it can sometimes lead us astray. Technological advancements are the reason the world around us has changed so fast. And one of those technological advancements has been our ability to manufacture things for the express purpose of tickling our pleasure circuits.
For example, cocaine floods our synapses with dopamine, creating a powerful feeling of reward without us having to do anything worth rewarding. The sweet taste of sugar used to signal that we were eating something rich with nutrients. Now that we can manufacture sugar and either eat it on its own or add it to anything we want, that’s no longer always the case.
The central problem here, then, is that mismatch can decouple the connection between the feelings our brain generates about a thing and its health value. Mismatch does, in fact, create instances where our brain is telling us to do more of something that will hasten its own demise. We refer to these as “guilty pleasures,” a concept that only makes sense in a mismatched world.
But, just as with hormesis, we’re once again talking about exceptions to a rule. When we present our brain with evolutionarily unfamiliar stimuli (like cocaine, Twinkies, and Facebook likes), we’re right to cast a skeptical eye towards how they make us feel.
On the other hand, when we present our brain with evolutionarily familiar stimuli (like a roasted chicken or a gorgeous sunrise), we can trust those feelings and the eons of evolved wisdom behind them.
Brain Fitness for Hedonists
Let’s turn our attention back to brain health and fitness. Are there scenarios where either hormesis or mismatch leads to pain-pleasure inversion?
By and large, hormesis does not apply here. While it is true that challenging our brain to learn new things is the foundation of brain health, the synaptic remodeling and other physiological changes stimulated by that challenge are not an adaptation to stress.
Furthermore, challenging cognitive activities are not inherently painful. Quite the contrary.
Challenging our brain is the only way ever learn anything, and our brain is one big learning machine. We spent the first two decades of our lives challenging our brain each and every day precisely because we found it so incredibly rewarding. Learning to walk and talk is really hard, yet no parent has ever had to motivate their child to do so by posting “no pain no gain” posters over their crib.
If we do find a challenging activity unpleasant, it’s usually either an issue with the activity itself, or from mindsets we’ve acquired over the years that undermine our innate love of learning.
And where mismatch comes into play is in helping us to understand the sorts of activities likely to be of greatest benefit to brain health. Specifically, the cognitive activities we’ve been engaging in the longest are, not coincidentally, both the ones we find most pleasurable and the ones with the most widespread benefits (mismatch may also help explain why more novel “brain training” games have not been shown to have the same impact).
Three illustrative examples:
Listening to music. In the words of researchers on this topic, listening to music “lights up the whole brain”. And studies have shown that the cognitive stimulation from listening to music translates to improvements in things like memory, concentration, learning, and creativity. Our never-ending appetite for music and its ubiquity in human societies is a clear indicator of the immense pleasure it brings.
Laughter and humor. It’s easy to dismiss the cognitive complexity of both creating and appreciating funny things, precisely because of how much we enjoy them. Fundamentally, though, “getting” a joke is a kind of puzzle solving, and our brain gives us quite the reward when it arrives at the “solution.” In addition to the neuronal-nourishing cognitive stimulation that humor provides, it’s also been linked to sustained improvements in mood and mental health, lower blood pressure, reduced heart disease risk, and improved immune system function.
Social connection. What does the research say is the greatest predictor of happiness in life? The quality of our relationships. We are the most social animal on the planet, and vast amounts of our brain’s processing power is devoted to social cognition. The immense health benefits of social connection and interactions are perhaps best demonstrated by what happens when we don’t get enough: social isolation is associated with a 50% increase in the risk of dementia, and the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day with respect to its impact on overall health.
Listening to music, laughing, and hanging out with friends feels really, really good because it is really, really good for us. It’s our brain’s way of urging us to do much more of it.
We’d be wise to listen.
There’s much more to say about these things. In future issues, we’ll dig into why things like music and laughter are so good for us, and what’s happening in our brain to make it so.
(For more about the differences between evolutionarily familiar and unfamiliar stimuli, and their role in health and disease, check out this episode of the Intelligence Unshackled podcast (now the Better Brain Fitness podcast), “Game Level vs. Source Code.”)
Brain Boosting Resources
In this section, I’ll provide some of my favorite recommended resources for improving brain health and function.
Newsletter Recommendation: humanOS
HumanOS is a platform for personal health mastery, providing resources for helping people to adopt lifestyles that, among other things, fully support the adaptations to cognitive stimulation. Among those resources is an outstanding weekly newsletter. This week’s edition is all about the role of sleep and its benefits for learning and memory.
Click here to read the full issue (and click the “subscribe” option on the upper left to receive future issues).
This Week on Better Brain Fitness: “Dr Wood’s Favorite Supplement.”
On a recent episode, we reviewed the supplements that are commonly promoted for improving brain health.
In this week’s episode, Dr. Wood shares the one supplement he does recommend (hint: see product recommendation below), along with the substantial body of research supporting its use.
Brain Health Supplement: Creatine
Spoiler alert: Creatine is Dr. Wood’s (and my) favorite brain health supplement (he and I both have a very high bar for supplement recommendations). As mentioned on the podcast, when looking for Creatine supplements, you want to ensure they contain CreaPure.
You can buy it in powder form, but I like taking it as a capsule (I take 2 per day, or 5 grams).
Quotes To Live By
Lastly, I’ll leave you with this wonderful quote from Robin Williams (hat tip to my mom for sending it to me):
“You're only given one little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it.”
p.s. - if you know of anyone who’d enjoy this newsletter, please share!
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