Idiot Brain

Idiot Brain

Have you ever gotten into a debate or argument with someone who you absolutely knew was wrong? Of course you have, it’s called Thanksgiving Dinner. This also happens via email, when you receive forwarded messages containing outlandish claims. In the past, I would normally dig up the story on or refer the person to, but it may all come down to intelligence. 

Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, writer and the author of Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To. I recently enjoyed listening and learning from his conversation with host David McRaney on his podcast, "You Are Not So Smart" (episode 117).

Burnett explained that people with low intelligence have little ability to recognize that they are of low intelligence. This means they have no reason to question or doubt the misinformation they choose to believe and share. The idea that someone knows more than they do can’t be appreciated. They decide it is easier to reject ideas and information than to accept the facts and evidence. The person with higher intelligence tends to get worn down by the “constant bludgeoning of ridiculous things.” 


This gets into why intelligent people often feel a sense of self-doubt. A person with higher intelligence realizes how much they don’t know. Those with lower intelligence do not realize this. Imposter syndrome and self-doubt are caused by an internal negative bias. The more intelligent people are fully qualified, but they face a nagging doubt. The more they learn, the more they realize they don’t know. They question themselves and suffer from these negative feelings. 

Any criticism can make these feelings worse because it is much more powerful than praise. One negative comment is more impactful than 100 pats on the back. This is because we are a sociable and friendly species. Our survival has depended upon belonging to a tight-knit community. When we receive negative feedback, we feel alone and rejected. Our brains are built to respond as if these are threats to the membership of our communities. 

Heartbreak and motion sickness

The podcast interview doesn’t just focus on intelligence. It also discusses how our brains affect how our bodies behave, as in the case of relationship breakups and motion sickness. 

Have you ever spent a few days or longer on a couch, eating countless bags of chips and other comfort foods, reeling from a breakup? Burnett explained that our brains do not like change, they like certainty. When a relationship suddenly ends, it causes a serious internal backlash. All regular routines become less predictable. All positive memories are tainted with negative associations. Your memories are a big part of your identity. These shocks and blows to your brain trigger a feeling of pain. You respond similarly to this pain as you would physical pain, which is why you might end up laid out on your couch for a few days. 

The way our bodies respond to what's happening in our brains can lead to actually throwing up. For example, when we are in motion — like walking or running — our brains understand what is happening. The brain is very good at comprehending where our body is in space. It is fine-tuned for moving around, but not fully adapted for modern transportation, where our bodies are motionless inside a contained environment such as a car or plane that is moving. Such motion can send our brains mixed messages. And so, our brains assume we are hallucinating due to toxins in our system. The brain then tells the body to vomit, what Burnett calls “the brain’s reboot.” 

The next time you are in an argument, questioning yourself, breaking up with a loved one or retching over a toilet after a long drive, remember the quote, “It’s OK to follow your heart, but take your brain with you.”

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