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Experiencing Difference: Bootcamp for the Brain

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

I was on a train to Liverpool from London a few years ago, and the driver came on the intercom to update us on how we were doing, as standard. As she finished her address, the passenger next to me (who was female) looked up anxiously and said, "Oh, a woman driver, we all know what this means!"

Needless to say, we arrived on time, perfectly safe and without any issues. Apparently very fortunate to have survived, given the circumstances.

By now, we should now know there's no scientific basis for someone to have an advantage on things like driving ability, business acumen or midwifery skills based on the fact they have a different demographic representation. However, this still doesn't stop people from being surprised when they meet someone who isn't what they initially expected. Nothing brings societies' stereotypes into sharper focus than those that buck the trend.

Psychological research has regularly concluded why we have difficulties embracing and trusting differences. It all stems from the part of our mind that deals with relationships; our "social brain". Social cognition in humans is distinguished by basic psychological processes that allow us to quickly understand what is going on inside people of people - their intentions, feelings, and thoughts. But this is an experiential mechanism and is subconscious: in simple terms, the social brain is very complacent and highly gregarious. It just wants a simple, structured and homogeneous existence. Challenging notions of what it means to be, for example, a train driver, disrupt that sense of order. People who don't "fit in" mess with the social brain's model of how the world works, and if there's one thing we've gleaned from the past 100 years of psychological science, it's that the mind hates uncertainty.

The social brain's inflexibility is also responsible for the debate over immigration. But before I lose my train of thought and drift on to the mental complexities of "identity", it's important to remember why it is that ancient mental fitness practices like yoga and meditation are becoming so popular again.

We're all told by doctors that exercise is good for us - so we (occasionally) do it, despite it being a lot of effort for most of us. The brain is just the same - it doesn't like hard work, even though it's good for it. Therefore, by being presented with uncertain scenarios or ones that don't conform to stereotypes, we are proactively exercising our brains. There-therefore, being presented with anything different to what we know is like Barry's Bootcamp for the brain.

This is exactly what the latest psychological science tells us: experiences that challenge our stereotypes about different groups make our brains perform better. One study at a US business school found a profoundly positive correlation between the number of times students had spent abroad and their success at solving a classic negotiation problem. Further studies in the UK have found that both creative ability and problem-solving success are enhanced following experiences with people who challenge stereotypes, such as female train drivers and male nurses. Living in a diverse society is like taking a daily run - constantly challenges our social perception and keeps the mind fit, agile and adaptive.

Regardless of political, humanitarian or ideological goals, social diversity is good for our minds; our capacity to innovate and our ability to grow. This has huge implications for a whole range of domains that use the brain's capacity to see beyond what's gone before, whether in business, health, education or the arts.


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