Thursday, January 21

Christmas Shopping: How To Forgive Our Mistakes | Gray Matter in Science EL PAÍS

It’s time for the Christmas shopping. Armed with a list of possible gifts and a budget, we can spend an entire afternoon, or even a whole day, in one or several shopping centers researching the offer that satisfies our wishes and intentions. But, alas, in such a consumerist world the options multiply, they surpass us and new possibilities arise that challenge our forecasts. Our list falls, we hesitate, and time is running out. We suffer from not knowing what to do, but finally we decide. And not always as we had planned, but we can go home happy. We only need a little gift that we will see how we cover it.

Problems can arise then, when we come home after a hectic day and, overcome stress and in a climate of greater relaxation than the one we live in the mall, we begin to value the purchases made. We think about it and wham !, the doubt arises. But why did I buy green, if the one I really liked was red? Why did I buy pants and not a jacket which was what I wanted? I gave it so much thought that in the end I was confused. How could I have been so wrong? And with what it cost! We had a hard time and that’s when, angry with yourself, you look in a mirror and slap yourself a couple of times, for being a fool.

Let’s leave Christmas and extrapolate the problem to another dimension. It is when what you have bought is something much more expensive and important, such as an appliance, a car or a house. Phew! I have made a mistake? Let’s raise the stakes: Why would I have made a career as a journalist if what I really liked was the law? Or worse, have I done well marrying this person?

Natural selection has not been able to change the human brain and mind so rapidly so that it can fully adapt to this developed world.

We can suffer a lot doubting in those situations, always, of course, depending on what is really at stake. Why does it happen to us, why is it so difficult for us to decide with success and conviction when we face multiple options? There are at least two scientific explanations. Anthropologists and sociobiologists believe that this should not happen because the human brain is flexible and can adapt with practice and function well in situations where there is a lot to choose from. But, since that does not seem to happen, whoever writes bets on another explanation, that of evolutionary psychologists, who consider that part of our behavior was sculpted millions of years ago, in the stone age, when the options between which to decide were very few: either you eat or they eat you, or you leave or you stay, or you associate with this couple who is the only one there is, or you will have none. So it was very easy to choose and our ancestors learned to do it correctly.

But the development of the neocortex brought intelligence and civilization, with great human development that followed agriculture, sedentary lifestyle, and the accumulation of wealth. Technology evolved very rapidly and before the brain changed at the same rate to adapt to the new situation, the world was already full of multiple possibilities and options. In a very short time we stopped choosing between a few things to choose from among hundreds of them. Evolutionarily it has been like going from the modest store in the neighborhood where you had to choose between two shirt models to the large outlet where you face half a kilometer of samples. Natural selection has not been able to change the human brain and mind so rapidly so that it could fully adapt to this developed world. That is why we suffer, not having the conviction of having made the right decisions.

But the brain itself has also developed ways to mitigate this discomfort in most situations. Without our realizing it, it provides us with an affordable, cheap and effective antidote to combat it. It consists of turning the situation around. When you think that you should have chosen red and not green, think that if you had chosen red you would be thinking that the best option would have been green, the one that you have really chosen. When you think that you should have studied law, reason that if you had done it now you would be longing to be a journalist, and when you suspect how good it would have been to marry that person who captivated you in your day, think that the most likely now would be that you were longing for the partner he really chose and now has. Use this antidote and don’t suffer when you get home and value your Christmas shopping. Had he chosen what he had chosen, there would have been no doubt. Forgive yourself, because that’s how we are, that’s how evolution and natural selection have made us.

Ignacio Morgado Bernal He is Professor of Psychobiology at the Institute of Neuroscience and at the Faculty of Psychology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Gray matter it is a space that tries to explain, in an accessible way, how the brain creates the mind and controls behavior. The senses, motivations and feelings, sleep, learning and memory, language and consciousness, as well as their main disorders, will be analyzed in the conviction that knowing how they work is equivalent to knowing ourselves better and increasing our well-being and relationships with other people.

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