I recently saw the following meme on Facebook.
I sure wish I could credit the author, because they are a genius. I’ve been paying a lot of attention to how Facebook affects me lately, and I’ve decided to turn it off (for now). I predict I’ll get a lot more books read and I’ll pay more attention to my family. Maybe I’ll even vacuum more often.
Our brains, priming, and ancient feedback loops
There is a wonderful book, one of my favorites, that does a much better job than I will at explaining these concepts. Go pick up “Why Buddhism is True,” by Robert Wright, and if you’re not a Buddhist, don’t let the title scare you. It isn’t about Buddhism being the One True Way or anything like that, but it looks at neuroscience that supports what the Buddha intuited about how our minds work, and ways we can improve how we think, feel and perceive.
Before I get into brain science, I want to steal a few more metaphors. There is a Native American story about a grandfather counseling his grandchild that we all have two wolves inside us, a wolf of hate and a wolf of love, and whichever we feed more often will be the stronger one. There is a classic idea in Western Judeo-Christian culture that we have an angel and a devil on each shoulder trying to tell us what to do. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen monk and teacher, says that each of us has a “storehouse consciousness” that contains the seeds of all emotional states, and we must be careful which ones we water. Motivational author and speaker Wayne Dyer used to say that whatever you focus on, you get more of.
These are all pointing to the same idea. Essentially, we all have the capacity to be all the things — generous, selfish, loving, hateful, scared, brave, etc. So what determines which one we are at any given moment?
There are two concepts in neuroscience that I think apply here: one is priming, and the other is modularity. The first is the idea that our brains can be primed, or loaded, toward one mental state/behavior or another. If you watch cute kitten videos and then your kid does something that could be cute or could be annoying, you’ll probably find it cute. If you watch videos of a riot and then your kid does the same thing, you’re much more likely to get angry. Have you ever noticed that on days when you set a loving intention or read/recite a verse about generosity from your tradition’s scripture, that you are more loving and generous? (At least at first — we’ll get into rebound effects later!) If you’ve ever mentally rehearsed for a physical task, you’ve used priming to your benefit.
The second concept is that the mind is not a unified thing, but a set of modules designed for specific tasks. Sort of like computer software programs. We’re switching from one module to another all day long, based on social and emotional cues sometimes below conscious awareness. As a kid I remember being amazed by my mother’s ability to scold me angrily in one breath and smile sweetly to the neighbor in the next. You may or may not be aware of some of your modules. If you’ve ever over-responded to something that you later realize wasn’t that big a deal, your brain was probably running a trauma module to keep you safe.
Most of our modules operate on feedback loops. The meme I posted at the beginning of this article references one mechanism for this, which is dopamine. Whenever we do something that is likely to benefit our survival (eating, mating, finding something shiny that may be useful later), we get a little blast of dopamine, which is a brain chemical that makes us feel good, briefly. It doesn’t last long, though, and it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of trying to get another dopamine blast … and another, and another. And before we know it, we’ve spent an hour scrolling through social media and found ourselves feeling more and more unsatisfied as we do so.
Choose which seeds to water
If I squeeze an orange, what will I get? (Orange juice, obviously.) Why? (Because that’s what’s inside). If I squeeze you and get anger, did I put the anger there? No, no more than I put the juice in the orange. You have all the possible emotions and behaviors in you already. No one else makes you yell, or smoke, or eat too many potato chips.
Remember that old phrase, “show me your friends and I’ll show you your future”? That’s priming. Another good book on the subject is “Influence,” by Robert Cialdini. He cites interesting data showing that when we see people (who seem like us and with whom we identify closely) doing something, we are more likely to do that thing. You can show your 4-year-old that jumping in the pool with the floaties on is perfectly fine, but he’s much more likely to do it after he sees another kid do it.
So the people you surround yourself with, and the things you watch, and the information you take in (watch less news, please, for real) affect your mental/emotional state and therefore your behavior. I say therefore because you have never, not once, behaved in a way that wasn’t spurred by an emotion. E-motion. Feelings move us in a direction.
So how do you water the seeds of positive emotion? I have some ideas.
Mind the external inputs
- Limit social media. Stop looking at carefully chosen excerpts from other people’s lives and believing that they’re all true. No one has life figured out. It’s. All. Bullshit.
- Limit the news. For real, how does it help you to know that someone died or got sick or their house burned down 500 miles away? It doesn’t. Try no news for 3 days and see if your life is actually missing anything, and then choose how much news you really need.
- Seek out people who are positive. Spend less time with complainers and negative Nancies (unless you live with them, in which case, imagine your body is made of Teflon and all their complaints slide right off you).
- Whatever your spiritual tradition, find verses that speak to love, kindness and peace, and spend time with those each day. If you have no spiritual tradition, find quotes from famous people you respect that speak to these topics.
Mind the internal inputs
- Stop criticizing yourself.
- Stop criticizing yourself.
- Stop criticizing yourself.
You can’t punish yourself into being a happier or kinder person. It doesn’t work that way. You have to love yourself into it. Just like you would with your child or your spouse or your friend. Wish good things on yourself. Enjoy the good things you have. Savor those damn potato chips instead of beating yourself up for eating them. You deserve to be nurtured. We all do.
Also go meditate, or pray, or walk in the woods, or imagine walking in the woods if you’re housebound. Use all your senses. Literally stop and smell the roses. Touch the bark of a tree. Get present with life. Recognize what emotions are driving you in this moment. Water yourself.
May you all be happy.
May you all be healthy.
May you all be free from suffering.