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On Re-engineering the Human Brain

colorful gameboard with colorful game pieces and dice
Image by Midjourney

In the geoengineering episode of Apple TV's Extrapolations, a line is uttered that describes the state of affairs here on Planet Earth unfortunately accurately:

The sky is easier to re-engineer than the human brain.

Point being: With regard to the health of our species and our planet, humans have demonstrated that we can't get it together.

Our system of bad incentives, our lust for power, and our attachment to wanting what we want when we want it have brought us here, to this most inauspicious time when we are faced with the accumulating consequences of our behavior.

In Extrapolations, they're talking about climate change, but let's bring it in close. Very close. Like, to the level of the behavior of the individual.

What We Know

We know what we could do to improve our well-being and health, but much of the time we don't do it. It's not as if we don't have enough information. We know, in general, what human beings need for optimal health.

Yes, you can get your bespoke nutritional profile and check out what your chronological age is and do your level best to turn back the clock. But as far as sleep, exercise, abstaining from toxic substances and stuff that's just not good for you, rest, snuggling, gratitude, and meditation go, the message hasn't changed much in years. We all need the same things.

Similarly, the message that your brain is in the way and needs re-engineering via new habits, though maybe not worded exactly like that, is literally ancient.

As professionals deeply trained in practices that help people shift their words and actions in the direction of better health and well-being, we find that a mindset informed by the reality of how we got to be who and how we are is crucial.

We're not talking about our childhoods or our specific stories. Stories, after all, are just thoughts—a bunch of words strung together that we've decided to believe and that we don't need to believe.

Once you've experienced the alteration in your default way of being and doing as a result of practicing a different way, you feel the power you have to re-engineer your brain. But alas, even that doesn't guarantee you'll keep up with your practice.

The Secret Ingredient

Technology is already providing help, through wearables, sensors, AI, and robots that boost well-being and have high EQ. Innovators are jumping in to fill the gaps we have a tough time filling on our own, absent daily practices.

From wearables that ping you to breathe to cars that tell you you're tired to chatbots that are empathetic and help you regulate your nervous system to customized food for your unique microbiome, we're developing ways to meet the reality that most people simply aren't going to devote the time necessary toward their own well-being.

Theoretically, this could lead to an explosion of longevity, health, and wellness in the coming decades. If a technological nudge, or more, is what's necessary to get us out of the mess we're in, we're all for it.

On Not Blaming the Victim

What we're NOT all for, however, is just slapping a bunch of technology onto the current system. Social media's perverse incentives, prioritizing the growth of everything, everywhere, all at once, and the values we show the world through our actions are problematic. But we were born into this system—all of us—and the system is the problem. The worldview is the problem. We are products of a context.

Let's Change the Register

In sociolinguistics and futures-thinking, we talk about a register as the language, values, incentives, rules, and goals of a particular context. What we have here is the need to change the register away from finance and toward regeneration, collaboration, and connection.

When everything is an investment, an asset or a liability, a product, and the game has been defined as a race to get the most stuff and influence, we're just playing that game. We've accepted that as the register. It's the water we swim in.

Finance is not a neutral metaphor, and talking about everything in terms of capital can potentially have really corrosive effects. When we think about education as investing in our human capital, that changes the way we deliver education and the kinds of majors people have. . . . Our register in finance shapes how we talk about our world. —Prof. Jerry Davis

We're changing the register, and we encourage you to join us. We need to stop talking about people as capital. That will change how we treat them and the services and support we create (including education) and the quality of our relationships.

This is a matter of human nature versus human as trained game-player. We're merely playing the game. If it were human nature, we'd all be acting the same way; we'd have the same intuitions. But we're not—we don't—so it's context that's the origin of our behavior.

Our register shapes our way of being in the world and how we relate to each other. Change the languaging, assumptions, lenses, values, incentives, and rules. Change the goal. Make it easier to be different.

Change the game, change the player.

In our course, The Future of Financial Advice, we'll be changing the game, thereby changing the players. Paradoxically, it's likely that only advisors already interested in changing the game will be interested in the course. We know that, and it's part of our multi-pronged effort (more to come on the other prongs) to make advisor well-being a priority for the industry.

Here's more from Prof. Jerry Davis and Marina Gorbis, the Executive Director of the Institute for the Future.

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