We have brains to keep us alive. They achieve this by thinking of all the possible dangers that might be around and telling us to avoid them. Dangers might be tigers tailing us from trees or alligators lying log-like by the lake (try saying that ten times fast). Equally dangerous in 2011 is social rejection: because if others think there is something wrong with us then it’s all over. So despite what we’re told by all those people promoting positive thinking, the only way we’re going to live a value-filled positive life is by accepting that our brains will think about all the things that could go wrong, and more specifically all the ways that we could do wrong, stuff up with our friends, offend loved ones, or be laughed at by total strangers.
There’s another thing we need to understand about brains, and again it is a skill that we have developed over millions of years to keep ourselves safe from tigers. So let’s jump into our time machines and go back to watch some cavemen develop these skills.
Caveman Og leaves his cave and goes walking through the jungle. He’s busy thinking about what shape he should make that new Wheel™ he is working on and wishing someone would invent Fire® so that he can cook that mammoth he caught yesterday. But then he looks ahead and sees a tiger. As we already know, his brain is going to run through everything he learnt on Survivor Serengeti about how to best get away from this foe. His body is going to prepare to run or fight – his heart will beat quickly, his breathing will speed up, and his arms and legs will become tense – all the things required to best help him not become tiger food.
Now let’s imagine that instead of seeing the tiger himself, his caveman buddy Zog sees the tiger and yells out the Caveman word for ‘Tiger’.
What will Og do when he hears the word ‘Tiger’?
Exactly the same things as if he sees the tiger himself.
His brain will think of ways to keep himself safe and his body will prepare to run away or kick some tiger ass. He doesn’t need to wait until he sees the tiger himself before his brain and body kick into action.
Millions of years later, our brains still operate in the same way. We hear a word or even think a word and our bodies feel as if that thing is happening right now. This is why we don’t like it when people talk about puke or poos at the dinner table. It’s also why it hurts so much when we imagine failing, being rejected, or any of those other things which our brains are programmed to think about.
We have a thought like ‘I might fail’, and we feel like we are failing right now – which is painful, so we try find a way to stop having that thought. But the more we try get that thought out of our head, the more we are telling our brain that this thought is dangerous (because it causes pain), which means we will think about it even more. Which means we feel even more like a failure, so we try to battle that thought even more, and … you get the idea.
We try to fight these thoughts through avoidance, or alcohol, self-imposed isolation, drugs, risky behaviour, antidepressants, procrastination, therapy, personal reinvention … The list goes on. We keep trying to find ways to stop having thoughts that our brains are programmed to have. Maybe now it is time for us to stop this impossible struggle.
Ok, not right now, you’ll have to wait for the next instalment…