Can you trust your own brain? Neuroscientist Heather Berlin explains

Have you ever told a story to your friends, and someone who was there interrupts you to say that’s not how it happened? Annoying, right? Chances are they’re not just being rude, they have genuinely perceived the events differently.

“We’re all living inside of our own perception box,” explains Dr. Heather Berlin, neuroscientist, clinical psychologist, and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. “Physically speaking, each brain is unique. It’s slightly different, and it’s shaped throughout our lives based on our experiences. Only you know your own first-person subjective experience. I will never know it. And although we might have similarities, there’s these differences that create our own box that we perceive the world through.”

Blending her experience in neurology with cognitive behavioral therapies and mindfulness, here she explains in more detail how our brains create these one-of-a-kind viewpoints over time, as well as how we can rewire and shape them for the better.

A woman with glasses is making a gesture with her hands.

Your emotions manipulate your experiences

How we feel has a substantial influence on the cognitive process, including memory-making, reasoning, problem-solving and perception. “What you’re conscious of at any moment can affect what you perceive,” reveals Heather. “If you’re in a negative headspace, you’re going to start perceiving more negative things in your environment. If you’re in a positive headspace, you’re going to perceive more positive things, even though the environment may be exactly the same.”

Even the slightest hint of melancholia can adjust your perception detrimentally. For example, one scientific study showed that people who listened to sad music thought hills were actually steeper than they were. But the heart doesn’t always have to rule over the mind. You just need to be aware of the power your emotions hold before heading off to a major life event full to the brim with rage. “You can choose to attend to positive thoughts and have them grow within you rather than focusing your attention on negative thoughts,” says Heather, who received her doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Oxford, Master of Public Health from Harvard University, and Masters in Psychology from the New School for Social Research. “Being mindful is your brain controlling what you’re attending to and also controlling what you’re taking in, as well as how you’re reacting to the world.”

A poster with a drawing of a brain in front of an auditorium.

Your brain can only process so much

Although our brains are capable of processing vast amounts of information (the average person can process as much as 74 gigabytes of data a day), it is simply impossible to absorb and store every single bit that’s thrown our way. It would just be too overwhelming to remember every last detail, especially when a lot of it is unnecessary. The downside to our brain giving us a break, though, is missing out on key chunks from this onslaught of information, which in turn can establish biases based on patterns we’ve seen in the past.

“It’s easier to categorize things, so we develop these schemas,” explains Heather. “But the problem is that even though, on average, something might be true, it doesn’t mean that it’s true for every case. Let’s say a bias is that women were homemakers and men were more likely to be in the workplace. If you then saw a picture of a woman and a man and were asked which one is working in the office, you would be more likely to say the man because of prior expectations.”

Not all schemas are bad, as they can help us understand how to operate in social situations and what behaviors to expect from certain people. But when subjected to negative ones over time, we can unconsciously turn them into a negative bias.

“There needs to be a balance between having a schema that helps us perceive things in the world and not making over assumptions,” says Heather. “I notice a lot of modern commercials for laundry detergent where the man is at home doing the housework, which I love because that is reprogramming the brain to counteract biases. If we can figure out ways to expand this box that we’re living in, then we are better able to connect with other perspectives.”

Your brain has the ability to adapt and overcome

None of us are trapped in our ways of thinking. However extreme a perception may be, there’s always a way to reset our thoughts for the better. “We’re all a work in progress until our very last breath and there’s always room for change,” explains Heather, whose therapy sessions for anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and impulse control disorders explore dynamic unconscious processes, and focus on helping people reach their full potential through deep exploration of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. “I’ve had people come to therapy in their 70s for the first time because they say they’ve been depressed their whole lives and don’t want to die without having experienced joy.”

Sadly, negative life events influence your perceptions more than the positive ones. But understanding, accepting and owning that negativity is all part of changing your point of view. “Life is full of pain and that’s part of the journey,” she says. “But being able to contextualize that and weave it into your narrative is something we can all do. Knowing that our perception and sense of self is an illusion, in the sense that it’s a construct of our brain, gives us an opportunity to have some control over how our brain perceives the world. That’s where the power lies.”

We spoke to Heather Berlin for The Science of Perception Box, a Big Think interview series created in partnership with Unlikely Collaborators. As a creative non-profit organization, they’re on a mission to help people challenge their perceptions and expand their thinking. This series dives into the science behind our thought patterns. Watch Berlin’s full interview above, and visit Perception Box to see more in this series. 

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