Want to know why you do dumb stuff?
It’s often a real puzzle as to how we make our decisions. We like to think of ourselves as smart, and yet we are often faced with the dilemma of not understanding our own behaviour.
How many times have you done something stupid, even though you KNEW it was wrong? And how many times have you “talked yourself out of” doing something, even when you KNEW it was right?
Do you feel like you have split personalities sometimes? Funny thing is, you do!
Get prepared for an amateur neuropsychology lesson…
As I’ve said before, there is no single YOU. We can see in brain scans that there is no one part of the brain that is always ‘on’, controlling the rest. Your brain is not a single identity. It’s more like a committee – multiple different parts with different priorities and agendas, arguing over decisions. Essentially you have thousands of personalities: different potential variations in how much each part of your brain influences your decision-making.
Think of a mixing board in a music studio, with all the different dials, sliders and buttons. The variations are almost endless. That’s what “You” are.
Your conscious awareness, the “you” that seems to live behind your face, is like the president of the company. YOU are your brain’s CEO. Most of the time You make decisions simply by agreeing with the committee. And that’s where things can start to go wrong…
You need to get to know The Committee. If you want to be in charge of the massive company that is your brain, you need to understand your employees.
The committee has 3 main factions:
1) THE BRAIN STEM (aka THE REPTILE)
In charge of your basic survival, such as heartbeat, eating and breathing, this part of the brain has a pretty simple purpose: Survive.
This is why it’s illegal in boxing to “rabbit punch” your opponent in the back of the head. You could disable their entire survival control center. A reptile’s brain is not much more than the tip of the brain stem. They care very little about anything more than surviving day to day.
You can see this with crocodiles and other lizards – they basically sit around all day waiting to eat or mate. They rarely care for their young, and if they do it’s only to the point where the young can survive on their own. There is no emotional connection. Lizards are the psychopaths of the animal kingdom.
When this part of your brain is speaking up in committee meetings, all it cares about is surviving and getting laid. It does not care about long term planning, self-realisation, connection with others, or emotional satisfaction. It doesn’t give a damn about your long-term goals, and does not understand the concept of sacrificing comfort for success. This is the part of the brain most likely to say “It’s not SAFE, so don’t do it!”
The reptile associates discomfort with feelings of pain and risk of death. It loves the comfort zone because it associates comfort with survival.
2) THE LIMBIC SYSTEM (aka THE MAMMAL)
This part of your brain is all about emotion, memory, relationships and other mammal-specific abilities. The mammal is very interested in connecting with others, feeling good, and making decisions based on emotion. When this part speaks up, it wants to FEEL good, and it wants it RIGHT NOW. It also wants to be accepted by the crowd, at all costs.
Think of herd animals in the African plains. They crowd together for survival. They have rituals and instinctual behaviours that bond the group together. Even the most predatory, lonely mammals still show emotional connection to others of their kind. A male lion will pretend to be hurt when a cub is biting him, to encourage and give confidence to the cub. Some monkey species have even been shown to engage in funeral-type rituals when an alpha member dies.
Mammals live almost entirely in the moment. They are either eating or being eaten; finding safety or protecting the nest; fighting or fleeing. There is no time for thoughts of the future, and they lack the capacity to think like this anyway. A tiger will attack you even if it is not hungry, because just by looking like prey or running you trigger it’s hunting aggression. A dog will never get bored with chasing a ball.
The mammal brain can also override the reptile brain, e.g. causing you to throw yourself in harm’s way to protect a loved one. But even so, while this part of the brain provides you with all the good feelings, it does not care about the future. This is the part of the brain most likely to say “That won’t feel enjoyable right now, so don’t do it!”
The mammal has emotional attachment to outcomes. Unlike the reptile, the mammal thinks of events in terms of feelings: sad, happy, anxious, excited, and so on. Your decision-making through the mammalian part of the brain will always be tainted with emotion, particularly emotional memory.
Bad past experiences will feel like they are happening in the present because the memory comes with emotion attached, despite not being current. This will steer you away from trying something more than once if it didn’t work the first time. This is a deadly fallacy for those who actually want to succeed. This same brain, that won’t allow you to keep trying to succeed in the face of failure, will also attach emotionally to investment. It holds back your progress by urging you to keep doing what doesn’t work. It prefers familiarity to results.
Strange, isn’t it?
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3) THE NEOCORTEX (aka THE HUMAN)
This part, particularly the frontal lobe, gives us an edge over most other animals, because it gives us the ability to make plans. We share this rare ability with only a few other animals, like orcas, chimps, and a few parrots. We can make relatively accurate predictions about the future and plan for long term results. Most other animals just survive day-to-day.
Because the neocortex can look at all variables and weigh them against each other, it can override other desires in order to gain greater results. Rather than taking the easy win available today, we can see a better and bigger score in the future that comes from planning. For example, the ability to sacrifice the short term pleasure of eating sugary foods in order to gain the long term satisfaction of an aesthetic and healthy body. Or doing a crappy low paying job to pave the way for a millionaire lifestyle.
This part of your brain is best equipped to make decisions for the greater long-term good, without being swayed irrationally by emotional fears (mammal) or survival fears (lizard). This is the part of the brain which says “Given all the evidence, and taking into account our long term goals, the most effective course of action is likely to be…”
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
You still need the reptile, as it will keep you alive. It will pounce into action and allow you automatically protect yourself in times of extreme attacks or confusing risk.
The mammal will build your relationships and give you emotional connection with events. You cannot enjoy things without the mammal. This is the part of the brain where psychopaths have the most significantly different brain function. The mammal allows you to love, laugh and feel wonder at the world.
But in order for both of those animals to contribute positively during the committee meetings in your head, it’s the human who should lead. The neocortex is where you can plan how to get good results the whole brain can enjoy more, and for longer periods of time.
When it comes to decision-making, leave it to the Human. Use techniques to cut off emotional attachment to outcomes, and silence fears for your survival. This article will give you some tips on that.
The Human is the only part of your brain that can see the longer term plan. The other two will just be looking out for today, which can lead to a lot of long-term suffering.
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