We can respond in different ways to change and uncertainty, but the most important thing is to persist and persevere. That is according to neuroscientist David Bueno, who explores our options for managing change and how our brains react in his new book, The Art of Persisting.
You say this is not a self-help book.
No, it’s not. I make that clear from the start, because I was afraid that someone would take it as one of those miraculous self-help books that don’t work. The book makes you think, but it’s no miracle cure for anything.
Your thesis is that when things are going badly, simply resisting is not enough and that we have to go a step further and persist.
That’s not to say that resisting can’t be helpful, but just resisting alone doesn’t allow us to keep moving forward. Persisting does. It’s much more proactive and stimulates processes of motivation and optimism and so makes you feel far more comfortable with your environment.
Persisting implies more effort.
Yes, because it’s a much more complex process for the brain. The brain is the organ that consumes the most energy in our bodies: it uses some 30% of all our energy even though its an organ that makes up only 3% of our bodies. Any activity that requires a lot of mental effort consumes so much energy that it exhausts us, which is why thinking is tiring. All our behaviours arise from the activity of the brain, from the neurons that interact with the environment. And one of its main functions is to be on the lookout to anticipate what’s going on around us.
In the book you say that not everyone responds equally to changes.
When faced with something new, there are people who tend to react with fear, and fear is a basic emotion that leads us to hide and run away, and therefore stops us moving forward. Then there are people who tend to respond with curiosity, and curiosity is always reflective because it involves the question: “What is this?” If this is a threat it’s okay to run away, but if it is an opportunity, we try to seize it.
Is optimism one of the keys?
Yes, optimism is key to progress and it is key to being happy. There are psychological tests that measure the degree of wellbeing, and optimistic people score much higher than pessimistic ones. Without optimism it’s very difficult to keep moving forward, because you see more of the negative aspects of changes than the positive ones. And if you see the negatives, the tendency is to think: “I’m staying the way I am,” which is resistance, not persistence.
You explain that living with a threat like a pandemic provokes a desire for authoritarianism, and that some societies become more authoritarian in the face of uncertainty.
This depends on how the threat is handled. If it’s managed through fear, then fear doesn’t allow us to keep moving forward and it also blocks reflective processes. There’s a general tendency to prefer to be told what to do, and so if it doesn’t go right then it’s the other person’s fault, not yours. This is reinforced by the messages that reach us. For example, the warlike messages given at the beginning of the pandemic didn’t help at all, because they increased the feeling of threat. Seeing people in uniform, in the military, talking about an illness can make people who are naturally prone to fear prefer an increase in authoritarianism. The feeling of threat, such as the pandemic, can lead us to a more authoritarian society. In fact, this is noticeable in the latest polls, which say that more than half of the population in Spain wanted there to be more restrictions and that the state should get tougher enforcing compliance with them. This is authoritarianism.
So could the pandemic lead us to a society with more authoritarian overtones?
Yes, it’s a danger and we must be alert. We must not resist and think that when the time comes we will face it, but we must persist so that this does not happen.
Are the messages of those who govern us decisive for our behaviour?
Yes, very much so. The power of language over our thinking is considerable. In the book I give some examples. It is not the same to be told that “together we will win”, or other militaristic messages, as saying that “with common sense and care things can get better”. Not that they will get better, because we don’t know, but that they can get better. These are messages that keep creeping in and when you realise that things are not going well, there is a cognitive shock, which if you interpret it with fear can lead you to a greater desire for authoritarianism.
Is the vaccine for this critical thinking?
Yes, critical thinking always comes from curiosity. People who are not curious have much less critical thinking. Critical thinking can lead you to see things differently. To persist, to be curious, one must necessarily be critical. We must first be critical of ourselves to understand ourselves, because there are people who believe that they are not authoritarian, but who do have authoritarian tendencies. Being critical does not mean finding wrong in everything, but being able to reflect and form an opinion.
You also talk about teenagers and that they tend to overreact. Why is that?
Adolescence is a great time for the brain, because there are so many changes and rearrangements in its connections. This causes the entire emotional part of the brain to become hyper-reactive. They react much faster to any emotional aspect, and those emotional aspects are always impulsive. In contrast, the part of the brain that’s dedicated to reflexively managing emotions, which is in another area, loses efficiency during adolescence. Combining these two facts, you inevitably get the typical teenage behaviour. But biologically it’s fine for them to be like that.
Because they come from a childhood where they were completely dependent on their parents or adults, and they are moving into an adult age where they will depend only on themselves. This means, first, that all the limits imposed on them during childhood must be questioned, because many cannot be maintained during adulthood. And questioning them means crossing those boundaries. Also, as they begin to go around the world alone they need to have these impulsive, emotional, much more active reactions to protect themselves if there is a threat. When you’re an adult, you already have experience and you anticipate the threats, but when you’re a teenager it’s the first time you’re dealing with it on your own. Therefore, this hyper-reactivity allows you to be better protected against any threat from the environment.
What will society be like after the pandemic?
It will depend a lot on how we approach this year as a whole. I can’t say what it will be like, but it won’t be exactly the same as before, that’s for sure. I think that there will be greater polarisation when it comes to worldviews, between those who see things with fear and those who see things with optimism. The latter will be the ones who will have continued to progress.