Science Says Your Brain Is Secretly Taking the Easy Way Out

Resist the urge to be cognitively complacent.

We’re hardwired to shy away from a challenge, suggests a new study from the University College London. And we don’t even realize that it’s happening.

Researchers gave 52 participants handles to hold — one in each hand. As they watched dots move on a screen, subjects moved the right handle if the dots were moving right and the left handle if the dots were moving left. When the researchers gradually made one handle heavier (meaning it took more effort to move), participants started to favor the other handle even when the dots weren’t moving in that direction.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Here’s the most important part: Participants didn’t realize the handle was becoming heavier. In fact, their motor systems “automatically adapted, triggering a change in their perception,” study leader Dr. Nobuhiro Hagura said in a press release. They really thought the dots were moving in the direction of the lighter handle. Translation: When we’re faced with a challenge, we see the options in front of us in a way that favors the easier one. “Our brain tricks us into believing the low-hanging fruit is the ripest,” Hagura said.

Other research highlights the cognitive benefits of learning difficult or new tasks, especially as we age. Even though we’re primed to take the easy road, putting some deliberate thought into whether you’re choosing something because it’s the easier way, and making the decision to take on harder and potentially rewarding tasks, is well worth the effort.

Read more about the findings here.