I keep running across advice on how to be happy, less afraid, more effective and similar personal improvements. Most of them are OK and I can see how they would be useful. But some are not and they are finally getting under my skin. These are the ones that propose a state of war between “you” and “your brain”. Surprising in this day and age, there are people who are not trying to help people over their dualism but actually encouraging it.
I have taken an example: “Why you should treat your brain like an unruly child” by A P Jacobs almost at random. There are many more. The first thing these articles try and instill in the reader is a separation between the self and the brain/mind and a lack of any responsibility of the “I” for what is thought and done. “I don’t trust my brain. It’s got some good qualities, sure, but it needs constant supervision. It’s like an unruly Boston terrier – left to its own devices, it will scamper off and rummage through the garbage can, spreading rotten guacamole all over the house. In my brain’s case, this means the hours spent wallowing in unrealistic worries, time-wasting regret and elaborate revenge fantasies.” This author seems to imply that he is not worrying, regretting and fantasying – it is just his brain that is doing that. It seems that he believes that it is not necessary to find out why he is doing these things and how to avoid ‘wallowing’; it is only necessary to make it stop with some sort of super determination.
“I have to monitor my thoughts myself. I have appointed myself my brain’s babysitter. Which is why I spend a lot of time thinking about the contents of my thoughts. Dozens of times a day, I like to ask myself: “Hey, what are you thinking about? Is that a good use of your brain?”” So what is happening here? It is not – hey, what am I thinking about? Why am I thinking about that?
“Unless I’m paying attention to it, here are some of the unpleasant areas my brain likes to wander into…Worries about absurdly unlikely scenarios… Jealousy of people about whom I know practically nothing…Indulging in absurd regrets …Stewing about perceived slights from years ago….Stewing about perceived slights that never actually happened…I have to tell my brain: Stay out of those areas.” So he tells his brain. This is probably not something that works – there is no separate brain willing to listening to some officious disembodied self. Different parts of the brain can communicate through language but not this way.
“I force my cerebral cortex to get control of my limbic system. To use behavioral economics lingo, I have to make sure my System 2 is in charge of System 1.” So that is what it is? This is crazy. ‘Limbic system’ is an outdated concept that includes the parts of the cortex that are not neo-cortex, the thalamus, and the basal ganglia. Without these there is no consciousness, no memory, no decisions. They work with the neo-cortex and not in opposition. There is no way the cortex can ‘get control’ of the limbic system. They work together or not at all. The writer may be trying to say that he wants to control his emotions – the limbic system was once thought to be about emotion as opposed to rational thought. Or he may be trying to say consciousness as opposed to unconsciousness. System 1 and 2 are more reasonable ways to think of what used to be called conscious and unconscious thought. System 1 is the process that most of the brain uses most of the time. It does not use working memory (and therefore is not restricted to the amount of information being processed at a time and the lack of speed of working memory); it is fast and efficient but it is not brought to consciousness or episodic memory. System 2 uses working memory, is brought to consciousness and is stored in the episodic memory, but it is slow and can only handle a few things at a time. It is, I think, obvious that system 2 cannot control system 1. If he is not talking about avoiding emotion or steering unconscious thought, what else could he be on about. It appears from his examples that he is not a fan of his default mode network and its time-wasting on memory, imagination, day-dreaming and the like. But this impression appears not to be his intent. “Now I’m not saying you should never let your mind wander. In fact, there’s some evidence of the positive effects of daydreaming.” So, positive thoughts from the default network are welcome but not negative ones, he thinks. I have to say that negative thoughts are very often good to have. People who don’t feel pain are always hurting themselves; people who never worry make bad decisions, people who feel no regret do not learn from mistakes.
What is missing is an appreciation that the brain has evolved to keep us as safe and successful as it can. It is not bad at it either. It is also your brain, part of your body. If you are talking to your brain, it is actually your brain talking to your brain. There is no other you talking. Talking to yourself can work or not work depending on how it is done. Being macho, domineering and Pollyanna-ish is unlikely to be the best way to talk to yourself.
I explored internal speech in a previous post a way to talk to yourself a way to talk to yourself .