Your Brain Is Trying to Kill You

04/10/2012 12:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2012

It's true. That pinnacle of evolutionary development, the throbbing tangle of genius housed in your skull, the 3-pound welter of neurons that gave the world poetry, quantum physics and HuffPost -- the thing without which you cannot live -- is trying to kill you. And all this time you thought it was your friend. For years it was my second-favorite organ, but as I learned more about it, I realized I need to keep a close eye on the damn thing.

I've also learned that our brains and our minds are, fundamentally, two very different things.

Here's the problem: There are millions of years of biological engineering wired into the brain. Actually, it's a mistake to even refer to "the brain" in the singular. We have several "brains," almost like a series of a snapshots at various stages of evolutionary development and complexity.

Up in the poetry/HuffPost section of our mental department store, we want to be happy, calm and fulfilled. But back in the lizard section, that brain is constantly, incessantly, parsing the world into threats, food and chances to mate. That brain can't tell the difference between a belligerent co-worker and a coyote. It just shoots our limbic system into overdrive. And when that happens, millennia of mental refinements are tossed down the stairwell.

In the natural world uncertainty usually equals death, hence the well-known "fight or flight" mechanism. When presented with an input you can't instantly make sense of, it's better to bite or run than end up as lunch for an apex predator.

There's an infamous scene in the movie Marathon Man where Laurence Olivier cryptically asks Dustin Hoffman, over and over again, "Is it safe?" Hoffman has no idea what he's talking about, and no matter how he replies -- "Yes, it's safe, it's very safe" or "No it's not safe at all" -- Olivier drills Hoffman's un-anesthetized teeth in response. That's the question our primitive brain is constantly asking. And like Dustin Hoffman, there's no way we can ever answer correctly.

The wonders of modern life, from the telephone to Twitter, have popped up in a wafer-thin slice of evolutionary time. We haven't yet evolved neurological coping mechanisms that can keep pace with our current day-to-day realities. We are surrounded -- inundated -- with choices. Glee or Smash? HuffPost or Fox? And in the face of this tidal wave of uncertainty brought on by technology, the primordial structures of our brains are working overtime, with often debilitating, even toxic, consequences.

I used to pride myself on my ability to multi-task -- juggling email, social media, the news and real work -- until I learned that my effective IQ dropped something like 20 points when I worked this way. So now I try to work mindfully. I use a variation of the "Pomodoro" technique and concentrate on a single task for a 20-minute block of time.

No matter which technique you choose for managing your mental and emotional hygiene, it really all comes down to this simple principle: identify the conditions which trigger negative reactions, causing your lizard brain to take over, then learning to respond mindfully so that you can stay in control.

I've found a hugely useful frameworks for understanding these "triggers" in David Rock's SCARF model of behavior. SCARF stands for "Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness." In a nutshell, we apprehend every social situation in relation to these these five categories or "domains." And in each of these, every situation is perceived in terms of of our brain's most basic threat/reward circuitry.

We've all been there: something happens in a meeting, we spill our coffee, our PowerPoint goes haywire, somebody makes fun of our sweater; it doesn't matter. The net result is that our Status -- our place in the group hierarchy -- is threatened. We blush, we stammer, our ears ring, we can't think straight.

Our lizard brain can't tell the difference between something of no actual consequence and something that's truly life-threatening. We spend the rest of the day gnawing on that one event -- like a kind of abstract PTSD -- and our whole day is ruined. When we get home, we kick the cat and yell at the kids. The lizard has won.

So, we have to outsmart our brains. Which is possible, because our brains can actually pretty smart be when we learn how to use them properly.

Something as simple as deep, regular breathing can be a wonderful tonic for a negative mental state, but we have to first recognize the need to stop, act consciously and reverse our reactions. This is the essence of mindfulness. And this is also an area where technology can be immensely helpful to us.

Arianna Huffington has spoken eloquently on the subject of a "GPS for the Soul." Our exploding understanding of brain science is combining with increasingly elegant and portable technologies to create new classes of tools to assist us in this quest for mindful awareness. This is how I became interested in the subject: for the past 18 months, I've been helping to design a system that combines subtle, portable sensors with smartphones and biofeedback to create a personal "early warning" system that alerts us when we're losing control and moving into non-optimal mental or emotional states.

So the good news is that two of the biggest impediments to our health and happiness --technology and our own brains -- can actually be used to overcome the very problems they've created. Until then, take deep breaths, and try not to eat any insects.