Lobotomies and imaginary snakes

Snake by Parker Knight

It’s easy to get caught up in an abstract world, and miss what’s happening right around us.

This is because we experience the world in a re-constructed, semi-artificial way.

We don’t “see” a tree. We see a reconstruction of it. Our brain receives information from the outside and reconstructs it in a model which makes sense to us.

It’s an abstraction, removed from the outside world, and yet it feels perfectly real.

This ability to create abstractions and then treat them as real, is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to interact with the physical world around us in a meaningful way. We can recognise and manipulate objects and respond to changes in our physical environment. It also allows us to interact with other people both directly and indirectly, sharing thoughts and ideas which are themselves abstract.

In fact, you and I are doing this right now. And we’re not even in the same space (or time) – that’s pretty amazing.

The flip side of this ability is that we can create imagined or potential scenarios in our brain and respond to then in much the same way as we would the real world. We can think about a potential event in the future and it can bring us the same joy and excitement or stress and discomfort as an event we actually perceive in the present.

Since all our experience of the world is via reconstructions, and we often like to switch between levels of abstractions, our brain has little interest in distinguishing between what’s real and what’s made up. To (at least one part of) the brain, it can pretty much seem one and the same.

And this is a problem when it comes to our physical stress responses and how they are wired to be triggered.

We have a number of deeply ingrained, biological warning mechanisms which are designed to fire a stress response when we perceive threats in our external environment. A leopard in a tree or a snake at our feet triggers this response and makes us uncomfortable enough with the current situation that we just want to leave.

Once we get out of the situation, the stress response disappears and we go back to normal. Phew.

But here’s the rub: That same ability to work with abstract concepts as if they are real, can trigger our stress response in exactly the same way – for imagined as well as actual threats. We think about a horrible email we might get in the future – zing – stress response. We imagine a confrontation with our boss – zing – stress response.

The result is that this stress response, which is meant to be an acute, short-term response to a real, immediate threat can be fired in a continuous and relentless way in response to imaginary and less immediate situations.

This can quickly overwhelm us and seriously inhibit our ability to operate normally.

It can also make us feel like shit.

The bad news is that there is no way to turn this off without losing our ability to interact with the real world, or work with abstractions. It would also leave some serious lobotomy scars.

The good news is, we can turn it down, it just requires some time and deliberate attention. We can be much more skilful at managing our responses if we start watching our thoughts and being aware of what’s happening in our brain.

It’s largely irrelevant whether you do this through a formal practice like meditation or just by taking note of how you feel and what you’re thinking about – the important thing is that you do it.

Once you’re aware of what’s going on in your brain, you can then make better decisions about what to do about it.

Sometimes you’re going to want to make changes in the physical world, but other times it might makes sense to just stop thinking about imaginary snakes.

This post riffs on ideas from Tara Brach, David McRaney and Seth Godin.

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