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May 16, 2024

The Neuroscience Behind “You Can’t Put Sugar on Shit”

BY Marc Mathys
In our daily lives, we often encounter the saying, 
“You can’t put sugar on shit.” 
This colorful phrase implies that no amount of superficial improvement can fundamentally change something innately flawed. While this saying is often used in a variety of contexts, ranging from personal relationships to business practices, it has a surprising resonance in the field of neuroscience. Let’s delve into the science of why some things simply can’t be glossed over. 
The Brain’s Perception Filter 
Our brains are wired to detect discrepancies and inconsistencies. This ability is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past, where noticing small changes in our environment could mean the difference between life and death. This skill is managed by the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which governs our higher-level cognitive functions, including decision-making, problem-solving, and social behavior. When we encounter something that doesn’t align with our expectations, our brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) lights up. The ACC acts like an error detection system, flagging inconsistencies and urging us to pay attention. This neural mechanism explains why attempts to gloss over fundamental issues often fail – our brains are naturally attuned to spot the underlying problems, no matter how well they’re camouflaged
The Role of Emotional Memory 
Emotional memory, stored in the amygdala, also plays a crucial role in how we perceive attempts to “put sugar on shit.” When we’ve had negative experiences, our amygdala holds onto those memories, creating a bias that makes us skeptical of future similar situations. This skepticism is a protective mechanism designed to help us avoid repeating past mistakes. For example, if a company has a history of poor customer service, no amount of flashy marketing can easily erase those negative experiences from the minds of its consumers. The emotional memory stored in their amygdala ensures that they approach future interactions with caution. 
Cognitive Dissonance and Authenticity 
Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced when we hold two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or attitudes. Our brains strive for consistency and harmony, so when faced with conflicting information, we experience psychological stress. Attempts to sugarcoat a bad situation often lead to cognitive dissonance, as the brain struggles to reconcile the disparity between the reality and the facade. Authenticity, therefore, becomes crucial. The brain appreciates genuine improvements because they align with our natural desire for coherence. Authentic changes are processed by the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine and fostering trust and satisfaction. 
Implications for Personal and Professional Growth
 Understanding the neuroscience behind this saying has practical implications for both personal and professional growth. In relationships, acknowledging and addressing core issues, rather than masking them with superficial fixes, leads to more meaningful and lasting connections. In the workplace, companies that prioritize genuine improvements and transparency are more likely to foster trust and loyalty among employees and customers. 
The saying “You can’t put sugar on shit” is more than just a colloquial expression; it’s a reflection of how our brains are wired to detect and react to authenticity and inconsistency. 
By understanding the neuroscience behind this, we can better navigate our personal and professional lives, fostering genuine improvements and creating environments where both trust and integrity thrive. 
So, the next time you’re tempted to gloss over an issue, remember: your brain—and everyone else’s—knows better.
 

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Hello I’m Marc the creator of the Reset-it program and a TedX speaker.

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