The 4 Things You Need to Know About Your Brain

3D Golden Number 4Without your awareness, your brain is beset with formidable problems and is struggling to solve them. The challenging issues for the brain have become worse in this era of massive amounts of data production and the need for speed in dealing with this data.

The brain would be disabled because of overload if it did not have ways to streamline the process. When you know how it works, you are going to make better decisions, avoid stereotyping and regulate your moods. The brain’s strategies take their toll in several important ways. So before your brain takes its “short cuts,” you might want to check out this information

In this information driven era, there’s an abundance of data streaming from multiple sources. Some of it is being assessed and processed by the brain. In this fast paced, competitive culture, we feel responsible for quickly tuning into this information, evaluating and processing it. Speed is a priority and technology has created the speedway that transports data from multiple sources and envelopes us in a bottomless ocean.

In the past, the source of much information came from our social relationships often on a one-to-one basis, much more slowly and person oriented.  Now we have become distanced from others and stand on the information speedway as our brains try to capture the data that is flying by. Even in important social situations, we have our i-phones plugged into our ears streaming information that may not have anything to do with the social experience but influences it.

When our minds are constantly tuned into work, family, finances, upcoming events, our “to do” list etc. and the new data pouring in from other sources, the result may be more than feelings of simple overload.  Statements such as “my brain is going to explode” are common. And yet the brain does no such thing. The questions we ask ourselves are:

Given the enormous amount of information pouring into the brain and the stored data already there, is the brain able to create an accurate picture of reality?  Are there shortcuts?

In an article entitled, “You are almost definitely not living in reality,  author B. Benson states that the answer to the first question is `no’ and the second query gets an emphatic `yes.’ Those answers are based upon an analysis of what the brain is really doing with all of the data.


In order to survive from an evolutionary perspective the concept of bias comes up as a mechanism that our brain uses to perfection in its filtering, sorting and processing information. Bias has recently received a great deal of negative attention. Reports of bias in scientific research  has put a negative spin  as studies cannot be replicated, negative data is withheld and ghost authors from China write the reports.

Bias is defined as; prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. This definition leads to the concern about how a prejudicial mechanism it can be useful to the brain and for our survival.

There are 4 huge problems that our brain needs to solve in this information loaded world in order to keep us safe, informed and moving forward.  These problems are

  1. Too much information as a whole.
  2. Data without meaning; emotionally or intellectually.
  3. The pressure to compute quickly.
  4. The need to use memory to store and process information

Problem 1:   Too much information   Solution:  The use of attentional bias.

There is just too much information in the world; we have no choice but to filter almost all of it out. Our brain uses a few simple tricks to pick out the bits of information that are most likely going to be useful in some way. We notice things that are already primed in memory or repeated often. Our brains are more likely to notice things that are related to stuff that’s recently been loaded in memory. The brain also pays attention to things that are unusual, that have changed, things that are congruent with our beliefs and imperfections in other people. The brain, by attending to unusual, changed factors has selected data that could protect us from predators.

Problem 2:   Not enough meaning     Solution:  The use of anecdotal bias

We need to make some sense of confusing/trivial data in order to move forward and so our brain fills in the gaps with stuff we already think we know, and update our mental models of the world.

We find stories and patterns even in sparse data. We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities and prior histories whenever there are new specific instances or gaps in information. our brain has no problem filling in the gaps with best guesses or what other trusted sources provide.

We imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of as better than things and people we aren’t familiar with or fond of. The filled-in bits generally also include built-in assumptions about the quality and value of the thing we’re looking at.

Our brain also simplifies probabilities and numbers in order to assign meaning and categorize them and takes a leap by assumes that it already knows the meaning of thoughts in other’s minds.

Problem 3:  The need for speed   Solution:  The use of the overconfidence bias

We need to act fast before we lose our chance, so we jump to conclusions and pay attention to the immediate and simplest data instead of delayed or remote information.

In addition, our brain overestimates our knowledge base and the ability to predict outcomes on a large scale. With this overconfidence bias prevalent is that it is not driven by incentives; it is raw and innate. And it’s not counterbalanced by the opposite effect, “under confidence,” which doesn’t exist.

The overconfidence effect is more pronounced in men—women tend not to overestimate their knowledge and abilities as much. Even more troubling: Optimists are not the only victims of the overconfidence effect. Even self-proclaimed pessimists overrate themselves—just less extremely. An example is the owner of a restaurant who  hopes to establish the next 5-starred restaurant, even though statistics show that most are out of business after just three years. The return on investment in the restaurant business lies chronically below zero.

Problem 4:  The need to store useful bits of data in memory    Solution: Use of the hasty generalization bias

With so much information jamming up the data speedway and with the pressure of time, we can only afford to keep  the bits that are most likely to prove useful in the future.


The brain, in choosing data, must take chances with some guess work and tradeoffs, emotional state of the individual, etc.  For example, we prefer generalizations over specifics because they are easier to categorize and store. A hasty generalization is a broad claim based on too-limited evidence. It is unethical to assert a broad claim when you have only anecdotal or isolated evidence or instances. For example, someone who is a sexist might conclude that all women are unfit to fly jet fighters because one woman crashed one.

Looking back in time, the survival gains from biases are what have allowed the species with their limited minds to cope with the staggering, increasing complexity of the real world. Faced with novel situations, our ancestor’s brains had to make rapid “fight or flight” decisions, and they had to do biased learning to get anywhere close to survival.

The problems, however, are numerous: stereotyping, faulty decisions at high cost, filtering out useful information,  filling in gaps with illusions that we quickly assume are real and storing things in memory quickly that perpetuate the bias.

What can we do?  We must stay ahead of our brain and remain aware of the bias. We can take a minute to attend to the situation outside and our mood and thoughts inside when there is no need for a split second decision. Perhaps with this awareness, the huge and destructive problems associated with over generalization and stereotyping will be reduced.

When we take into account what our brains are doing  with information, we can certainly participate in the movements to eliminate the stereotypes in our society.

The 4 Things You Need to Know About Your Brain

Margaret Altman, LCSW, MSW

Margaret Altman is a crisis intervention specialist and has intervened in many explosive situations within jails, emergency rooms, suicide prevention centers and psychiatric units. She is a featured writer on the Mad in America website and has more more than 35 years of experience as an LCSW in psychiatry, corrections and private practice. Her book, "Developing Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence" is on Amazon. Margaret currently focuses on issues of minority and marginalized populations in order to give them a voice in the mental health domain.


APA Reference
Altman, M. (2016). The 4 Things You Need to Know About Your Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 1 Nov 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Nov 2016
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