Earlier this week I was thinking about why we care about what others think about us. I was filming a video for the cooking portion of my YouTube channel, I was holding up this tomato and talking about the benefits of how incorporating tomatoes into our diets can benefit the brain. The tomato I chose was nearly flawless in appearance. I chose this tomato to hold up because it was a big, beautiful, almost perfect tomato. In holding it up, I was careful to ensure I didn’t hold it in a way that would show the viewers that it wasn’t as perfect as it appeared. After I finished talking about the tomato, I realized how important it felt to me to only show the perfect aspects of the tomato and none of the imperfections.
The ‘imperfect’ tomato I held I had grown in my organic garden, which, more often than not, yields less-than-perfect results due to various challenges like pests, fungi, blights, and rusts. However, there I stood, hesitant to expose any imperfections. Why was that? Why did I fear revealing the flaws in my tomato? It was almost as if acknowledging that blemished tomato implied I was an incompetent gardener, unworthy of imparting knowledge.
Upon reflection, I came to understand that this tendency to emphasize our positive attributes and conceal our flaws is deeply ingrained in the human brain, a phenomenon best explored through the lens of neuroscience.
Seeking Validation and the Brain's Reward System
Our brain’s reward system, responsible for regulating emotions and motivations, plays a central role in this behavior. When we receive praise or validation from others, it triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, creating feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. In my case, I craved that ‘feel-good’ dopamine rush, anticipating it when viewers complimented the perfect tomato or the well-tended garden.
But this desire for validation goes beyond mere praise; there are more complex factors at play in our quest to disconnect from our authentic selves.
Social Acceptance and the Amygdala
Another significant factor behind our inclination to showcase only our best selves lies in the brain’s social processing mechanisms. Humans are inherently social creatures, hardwired to seek acceptance and belonging within social groups. Consequently, we strive to present ourselves in the most favorable light to gain approval while avoiding potential rejection or criticism.
This behavior traces its roots to the amygdala, a brain region responsible for processing emotions and detecting social threats. The amygdala assesses social situations and determines whether they pose a risk to our social standing, in my case, measured by the number of likes on my video. To avert potential negative comments, I instinctively wanted viewers to see only the tomato’s best side, concealing its rotted stem area.
The Prefrontal Cortex and Self-Image
The final line of defense in my decision not to showcase the tomato’s imperfections was my prefrontal cortex. This brain region, involved in decision-making and self-regulation, played a significant role in my desire to present only my best self. It helps evaluate potential outcomes and make choices aligned with our desired self-image. By displaying our ‘ideal’ side, we engage in self-presentation strategies aimed at achieving social goals and maintaining a positive reputation.
Factors Contributing to the Disconnect
This innate tendency to present a polished exterior while concealing our true selves can stem from various factors. Societal pressures often emphasize the need to appear successful and composed, compelling individuals to mask their true feelings. Fear of judgment or weakness can further drive this disconnect, as can the desire for social acceptance. In professional settings, individuals may feel compelled to maintain a specific image to succeed in their careers.
Moreover, past traumas or difficult experiences can lead to a habit of suppressing genuine emotions, resulting in an ongoing disconnect between internal feelings and external presentation.
In essence, the neuroscience behind our desire for approval is a complex interplay of brain systems, emotions, and social dynamics. It reminds us that the pursuit of authenticity in a world that often values perfection requires a deeper understanding of our own brain and the willingness to embrace imperfections, both in ourselves and in our tomatoes.