The Surprising Power of an Uncomfortable Brain


Image: Flickr/J Brew cc license

James Mourey, doctoral student in Psychology at the University of Michigan, decided to run experiments on guests at his mother’s holiday parties without her knowledge. First, at her Fourth of July party, he slipped a handful of plain white plates into the stack of patriotic ones. Then, at her Labor Day party, he inserted Halloween plates. Finally, Mourey positioned himself at the end of the buffet where he shook hands, gently stole the plates and weighed them on a sensitive scale hidden beneath the tablecloth. The guests were unaware they were lab rats. Mourey’s mom was unaware that her son had press-ganged her guests into participants in his science project. And Mourey showed that people who happened to pick plates that mismatched the event also took less food.

It was one in a series of experiments showing that a brain shocked from its easy complacency functions better than a brain kicking along on autopilot.

Need another example? Here’s one from what the researchers call a “goodbye and good riddance” obituary. Basically, we are all used to obituaries that laude the deceased as a Gandhi-like renaissance person, as kind and noble as he or she was talented and humble. What happens when the obituary doesn’t fit the expected model? To find out, Daphna Oyserman, Dean’s Professor of Psychology and Co-director of the USC Dornsife Center for Mind and Society gathered 463 people and gave half of them a standard, glowing obituary and half of them a slightly nontraditional obituary expressing gratitude that a fictional departed mother was dead. Then she had these two groups take a cognitive test and decide whether or not to purchase small, innocuous trinkets.

“People who read the ‘good cry’ obituary were not as smart and were more wiling to buy stuff than people who read the ‘glad she is gone’ one,” Oyserman said in a USC press release.

There’s more: People who took a cognitive test bordered with pink did worse than people who took tests bordered with black or white…but only on Valentine’s Day, when pink is the comfortable color. And when people were shown odd wedding photos (green dress, purple tux, gears on the cake), they made fewer reasoning errors and expressed less interest in the mindless consumption of snow shovels than a group that had been shown “culturally fluent” wedding photos (white dress, black tux, etc.).

Here’s what this means: If you eat from stars-and-stripes plates on the Fourth of July, attend white weddings and read cookie-cutter obituaries, your brain will rot, your waistline will expand and you will walk zombie-like into the halls of mindless consumption. Okay, maybe that’s going a bit far. But to a degree this dystopian descent into the brain of a Rockwellian automaton is absolutely true.

If you want to think your best and make the best decisions regarding tchotchkes and snow shovels, make sure the situations you encounter don’t lull your brain into a comfortable sleep. According to the article describing these studies, interacting with other cultures helps. But anything that forces “cultural dysfluency” should work.

Oops, there’s a new word and here’s what it means: “Cultural disfluency arises as a result of a mismatch between culture-based conscious or nonconscious expectation and situation, cuing a switch in processing style from associative to rule-based systematic processing,” the paper writes.

In other words, when everything fits into the boxes prescribed by culture, you don’t have to think; your subconscious can run the show. But when a situation breaks your expectations, it’s a jarring wakeup call that brings your brain back online.

We spend so much time trying to fit in, to do the “right thing” in social situations or to sculpt these situations so that they meet our guests’ expectations. This research shows that a little dysfluency would go a long way toward making your brain and the brains around you better off.

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One Response to The Surprising Power of an Uncomfortable Brain

  1. This is absolutely fascinating! If possible, I’d like to cite this article for a blog post I was going to do anyway later this month. Thank you very much!

    In particular, “If you want to think your best and make the best decisions regarding tchotchkes and snow shovels, make sure the situations you encounter don’t lull your brain into a comfortable sleep…” seems to suggest that ‘being uncomfortable’ is perhaps a better place than riding along on autopilot.

    I think these studies could have far-reaching implications when it comes to the process of personal change and transformation!

    Best – Daniel D. Maurer, Author

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