Sunday, October 23, 2022

the devil you know

     Sometimes it seems impossible to turn good intentions into lasting change. New Year's resolutions rarely last. We usually fall off the wagon, gain the weight back, go shopping instead of saving or paying off debt. Abused women, when they've gotten free, often get into new relationships with new abusers. Big lottery winners go broke again before they know it. Why? Why do we go right back to the devil we know, even when we know damn well it's the devil? Even when we know it's going to hurt us just the same way it hurt last time, and every time before? 

    OK, there are probably lots of reasons. One is that making decisions takes a lot of energy, and doing what we're used to is a shortcut. Our brains love efficiency. Another is that there is always risk in what is unfamiliar. Think about this: our brains have evolved from our primordial ancestors, but we still have those lizard brains. The higher neurocognitive processes are just added on top of the more basic ones. The bits of the brain responsible for making good, rational, reasonable decisions are just the tip of the whole structure. We still have all the unthinking instincts underneath, from the purely physical reflexes on up. And there is a high energy cost, a literal metabolic energy cost, in accessing our rational evaluative minds to counteract our lizard brain's judgment that whatever is unfamiliar is automatically risky. 

    So how can we ever learn? Are our best intentions always condemned to failure by our inner lizard? No, they are not. We can outsmart the little beast! But it is not quick and it is not easy. One thing is to do like Cassian and the desert monastics (see last week's post), and pick one priority to focus on, to start with. They didn't wait until they had gluttony under control to address pride and sloth and lust and the rest, but they did focus on it first. It's a good place for most of us to start, too, since diet has such a direct effect on mental and physical energy.

    But the other part of overcoming the lizard brains' familiarity bias is to get familiar with the future self we wish to become. How do I get familiar with a future state? Imagination! It's my mind's familiarity bias, after all. So, staying with the example of gluttony from last week, I spend time deliberately imagining a fit and healthy version of myself. The point is, though, it's not about imagining myself winning marathons, or lying on the beach in a bikini. It's not about how much I would weigh, or what my blood pressure would be, or how my knees would thank me. I have to actually rehearse a different self-concept. If I want to change my habit of eating when I'm not hungry, I have to think about what kind of person that fit version of me would be.

    When I quit smoking years ago -- which may have been the hardest thing I've ever done -- it wasn't just the act of smoking that I was giving up. In order for it to stick, I had to change my whole identity. I wasn't just a person who happened to smoke cigarettes, I was "a smoker." Giving up smoking, for me, meant becoming a softer, more vulnerable person, less cynical, less defensive, more hopeful, less rough around the edges, less cool. I had to actually think about that identify shift, on purpose, for a while. And I really believe it made all the difference in making that change stick.

    There's a known phenomenon in neurocognitive science in which mental practice actually improves physical performance. Imagining rehearsing the piano concerto -- all the fingerings, your posture, the timing, the pressure of the keys under each fingertip and the pedals under your toes, measure by measure -- actually results in playing it better, just as if you were actually practicing with your hands on the keyboard. Imagining serving a tennis ball, or putting a golf ball, likewise. These are all examples that have been demonstrated experimentally. The corresponding neuronal changes in the motor centers of the brain have been demonstrated, too.

    We can get our recalcitrant brains used to the state we want to achieve, if we imagine it in enough detail. It's about paying attention to when and why I tend to overeat or skip exercising, and thinking through "what would Fit Felicity do?" If I notice that I eat when I'm bored, or distracted, or stressed out, then I can deliberately spend time imagining how a healthy version of me would deal with those feelings. Not fantasy, but real nitty-gritty, situational, mental practice. Familiarity bias is a real thing. Mental practice is, I think, an important part of overcoming it, and banishing the devil we know for good. 

~~~  PEACE  ~~~

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