What role does your brain play? Most people would respond that the primary purpose of one’s brain is to allow you to think, but that’s not correct, claims Lisa Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of the book Seven and Half Lessons about the Brain.
In her book, Professor Barrett argues that the brain’s most important function is running the various systems in your body that help you make it through a typical day. She writes, “according to recent findings in neuroscience, even when your brain does produce conscious thoughts and feelings, they are more in the service to the needs of managing your body more than you realize.”
Consider what needs to happen when you make up in the morning. You brain needs to allocate the energy needed to “drag your sorry body out of bed and start your day.” The brain starts chemical reactions in your body that provides for quick energy needed to wake up and start moving.
The brain runs efficiently. Similar to a financial budget, Barrett notes, the brain tracks resources such as water, salt and glucose (sugar) as they are acquired or used. Every action you take while you are awake requires resources that the brain withdraws from you account. Similarly, you replenish your account with deposits that include eating and sleeping.
The brain also is a superb resourse manager. If you are thirsty and drink a glass of water, the water takes about 20 minutes to find its way into the bloodstream. However, within seconds of drinking, you no longer are thirsty, because the brain knows that when water is deposited into your body’s account it will provide needed hydration so the brain tells you that you are no longer thirsty long before water enters the bloodstream.
The brain typically does not differentiate responses to physical or mental pain. Barrett explains that a stomach ache and anxiety are both ways that human brains make sense of physical discomfort. Every mental experience is rooted in the brain’s physical budgeting of your resources. That helps to explain why getting more sleep or breathing aid in solving problems that traditionally are considered psychological.
Barrett encourages people, especially during challenging times, to consider their positions from a body-budgeting perspective. If you are stressed, don’t focus so much on the causes of that stress, e.g. you can’t get cabinets needed for your latest condo project. Instead, ask yourself do you have enough resources in your body budget to deal with the situation. Did you get enough sleep last night? Am I hungry? Should I exercise? Do you need to make a deposit into your body’s account?
Barrett concludes that the brain is not for thinking. “Everything it conjures, from thoughts to emotions to dreams, is in the service of body budgeting.” When you recognize the true role of your brain, you will be better prepared to make it through the day and effectively respond to challenges.