George Mason Law School

The science behind a change in mindset

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February 13, 2017

11:56 PM

I’ll be the first to admit — sometimes the study of neuroscience does more to drain my brain than to enlighten me about its inner workings. Take “priming” for instance — the phenomenon by which our environment shapes our behavior, even unbeknownst to us. For example, if you ask people on the street one week before Halloween to list things in the category of “candy,” they will list more orange things than they will a week later. Why? With all the orange around during Halloween, orange things are at the forefront of our minds, or, in science-speak, those circuits in the brain are “primed.” It’s kind of like a soccer team: even though one player has the ball, the rest of his team is watching his every move, gauging his plan of action and placing themselves to receive a pass. While we are thinking, our brain is gauging every possible direction, integrating our environment and activating any related information we might need, ready to “receive the pass” of our next thought.

it is rather alarming to realize what I read, what I hear, what I see, even unconsciously, impacts my actions.

So maybe we see October through orange-colored glasses — no big deal.  But what If I told you that I could influence your shopping preferences in a certain direction by asking you to unscramble a few sentences that happened to contain either the word “frugal” or “prestige” before shopping? Or what if I told you that I could flash fast-food logos on a screen faster than your conscious mind can recognize, and influence the speed at which you rush through a reading task? Or that simply seeing fast-food logos before taking a questionnaire would make you more likely to favor instant gratification over saving?  As I fancy myself autonomous, it is rather alarming to realize what I read, what I hear, what I see, even unconsciously, impacts my actions.

Why am I telling you this? I could go on about the fascinating neural circuitry here, but the point is this: we are primed, but we are also the primers. How many times a day do I hear the words, “I’m tired. I’m stressed. I have so much to do. I don’t care anymore. I’m so worried.” Whether they’re my own words or the background chatter of Swem Aromas, what color are the glasses we wear here? At the beginning of the semester, Carley Schank ’19 and Emily Gardner ’17 appealed to us in their articles in The Flat Hat to change our dialogue as twamps, to combat the stereotypes of stress entrenched in twamp culture with a shift in semantics. Stress and comparison may be the mindset our brains have on speed-dial, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Priming isn’t evolution backfiring on us; it’s a mechanism by which the commonness and associations we perceive become our sense of collective normalcy — it is a mechanism by which culture is created.

Every time we refuse to answer “How are you?” with our workload levels and corresponding stress-meter readings, we are refusing to strengthen the connection in our brains attaching our productivity to our identity.

I know that when it comes to changing culture, the conversation can feel abstract. As twamps we love the true and the tangible; we want proof and then we problem solve. Well, here’s the science and the steps. I’m not a neuroscientist yet, but I can tell you that every time we refuse to answer “How are you?” with our workload levels and corresponding stress-meter readings, we are refusing to strengthen the connection in our brains attaching our productivity to our identity. As they tell us at the career center — it’s all about the network. What if we pursued valuable connections in our brains with the same gusto with which we carefully construct our network on LinkedIn? I can promise you, it’ll pay off better than any job we could get. Let’s take Carley and Emily up on their challenge and start changing the semantics. The synapses will follow.

Contact Emily Hauge at [email protected].

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  • Emily Hauge

  • SnazzyO

    Fascinating concept. You’re talking about taking control of subliminal seduction. I’d be interested to see if there were any case studies where people have managed to change the links with behavior modification (i.e. change the semantics).

    Well done!

    Mrs C.