Our brain adapts to everything– regardless of whether it is good or bad.
When something we say, hear, or do doesn’t fit with the reality we know, our brain lets us know. A subtle blip, a wave of electrical activity, goes off in our brain, signaling that something isn’t quite right. That an error we need to pay attention to has occurred. It’s a convenient feature of our brain, designed to make sure that we learn from mistakes. If the signal is loud enough, it reaches awareness, and we quickly try to attempt to correct it.
Over time, if repeated enough, our mind starts to become numb to this alarm. The electrical spike starts to diminish, fading from conscious awareness to subconscious to practically non-existent. Like a parent repeatedly telling their child “clean your room” the message eventually gets tuned out– in one ear, out the other, as the saying goes. We no longer are even aware of the message being sent. If we don’t assign importance to the error message, why should our brain pay attention, or better yet, try to change?
For things that matter, this can be a bad state to be in. In the world of learning, be it school or on the athletic field, we cease to be aware of the mistakes we make– the missed blocking assignment, the slightly misspelled word. When we aren’t aware, we not only can’t correct and learn from our mistakes, we don’t even know we are making them. Unaware, we assume we are great spellers, fantastic blockers, or a math whiz. If we are out of school and don’t have a coach or teacher to politely inform us we actually got it wrong, we continue about our way, oblivious to our faults.
While this might seem, extreme, it occurs every day to all of us. As a coach, I like to venture down to the local jogging path for a clear example. Stand there for a short time and you’ll witness cringe worthy running mechanics. No, I’m not talking about subtle differences that coaches might argue over. I’m talking about running form that makes you wonder how in the world they are even moving forward with all of their bones, ligaments, and tendons, somehow intact. Critique aside, to these runners their running form feels completely normal. They see nothing wrong with it. In most cases, a coach or friend likely never corrected them, letting them know not to flail their arms in a crazy windmill fashion, or hunch over so bad at the waist it looks like they’re going to fall. At first, I’m sure their body gave them hints– likely felt in their knee, Achilles, or back. A feeling of pain or fatigue here and there, trying to shout “Hey! This may work, but man is it uncomfortable!” As the runner continued, those screams for help– or error messages– got quieter and quieter, until the mind and body just accepted their form for what it is.
This phenomenon does not just apply to learning or even our athletic endeavors; it applies to lying. The same pattern, error messages slowly fading into the wind because no one paid attention to him or her, occurs when we lie. Over time, individuals aren’t even aware they are being dishonest. It’s the reason why people traverse from liar to habitual liar, without even a second thought. While that’s concerning in its own right, in the world of sport, it also explains how people can cheat.
When it comes to athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, the litany of preposterous excuses upon being caught is legendary. Even more disturbing are the vehement anti-drug stances and the proclamations of fighting for clean athletes from individuals who eventually get caught taking drugs. How do these individuals, who portrayed such a strong front of playing clean, delude themselves– and actually believe it?
The answer is they no longer received the error message. They don’t actually think they are cheating. Why should they? The part of their brain designed to inform them isn’t letting them know anymore. This doesn’t occur instantaneously, but instead gradually over time. Our first transgressions, when we are receiving the error message, may be minor.
Perhaps, we use a supplement that promises to legally boost our testosterone levels. We justify it, telling our error message to shut up, by saying “it’s legal!” The next time we’re faced with a dilemma, it may be when our coach or doctor provides a gray area prescription drug, like corticosteroids. Again, it may be technically legal to take the drug, but alarm bells go off, prompting an internal dialogue asking if we feel good about it ethically. Again, we might explain away the inner conflict by saying, “it’s legal, everyone takes it, and my coach/doctor said it was okay to take.” This pattern continues, and with each error message, and the justification that follows, the error signal and our brain gets quieter and quieter. Eventually, by the time we come to the major line, the one where we use steroids or EPO, the signal is so low that we aren’t even aware of it. Any justification will work.
As humans, we are masters of self-deception. The problem with the scourge of doping in professional sports is partially due to this phenomenon. By the time athletes get to the point of crossing that mythical line, it’s actually not a big deal. The problem in the fight against doping isn’t the big line; instead, it’s all the small ones leading up to it.
Further Reading on the subject:
How the Brain Adapts to Telling Tall Tales– Scientific American