Charles S. Jacobs on “The Neuroscience of Singles Bars”

JacobsHere’s an excerpt from Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science, in which Charles S. Jacobs discusses how to apply lessons of cognitive neuroscience from singles bars. The excerpt was featured in Psychology Today. To check out other resources and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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We may not all have experienced it first hand, but we’ve at least seen a movie or read a story in which it happens. As the night goes on in a singles bar, women grow ravishingly beautiful and men handsome as can be.

We can hypothesize many a scientific cause, from the effect alcoholic drinks have on the brain, to those hormones rushing through our bodies, to the pheromones wafting through the air. It may also have something to do with the psychological law of scarcity: as our opportunities for a liaison diminish, those that remain become all that much more attractive.

But wait a minute. We all know that there is no actual physical transformation that’s taking place. It’s not the flesh and blood person that is changing; it’s our perception of them. The first kind of change takes place in the objective world we believe we inhabit, while the second happens in our minds.

Of course, we know this when we sit back and reflect, but it’s quite easy to forget it in the heat of the moment.

I have a teenage daughter who is facing a momentous decision. We have talked about the incredible discoveries of neuroscience and their ramifications for such concepts as free will and the nature of reality. She becomes wide-eyed and animated as the connections are made in her brain.

Given the interest she’s shown, I have worked hard to get her an opportunity to work in a neuroscience lab over the summer. What doting and naive father wouldn’t do the same? But her excitement doesn’t exactly match mine. I foresee a summer of discovery on the cutting edge of what is truly the new frontier. She sees fewer opportunities to go to the beach and meet boys, or to go to the mall and meet boys, or to just meet boys.

How do I help her see what I see? It’s not the world of malls and beaches and boys that’s exciting today. It’s the brain that creates that world. Leaving the intellectual thrills of the new science aside, it’s all the practical lessons she could learn as well, lessons that I believe will ultimately make her happier.

She can learn how the mind creates rather than records our experience of the world, how our decisions are made not with logic but with emotion, and how simply thinking an idea can change the way we perceive the world, effectively changing the world itself. These lessons will teach her to be more focused and disciplined in her thinking, to make wiser decisions, and to find happiness within. She will become a better, more fulfilled person in everyway.

And then she’ll know that those boys really aren’t becoming more attractive in singles bars as the night goes on, that when she looks in the mirror to check out her appearance, it’s her brain that determines whether she’s attractive or not, and that the mind really is the sexiest organ.

Yes, neuroscience has all this to teach us. But it also teaches us that teenagers don’t have a fully developed orbital prefrontal cortex, and so are simply incapable of adequately valuing the long-term over the short-term, of hard-won knowledge over immediate gratification.

And it teaches us that decision are only really embraced when we feel we’re making them freely, and not when others, even wise old fathers, are making them for us.

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Charles S. Jacobs uses the lessons of cognitive neuroscience to improve business performance. As indicated earlier, he is the author of the aforementioned Management Rewired and managing partner of 180 Partners. He lives with his two daughters in Boston, MA.

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