Quick catch up from last time: we all have an inner monkey who has been programmed by evolution to take control when it thinks we’re in danger, or when it thinks that a behaviour (or substance) will increase out likelihood of survival. This was great when lots of things were trying to eat us, but it’s crap in the modern world, because monkeys aren’t very good at figuring out what’s good and bad for us when many of the decisions of modern living are ambiguous.
So, this inner monkey can take over our ability to think rationally at the drop of a hat. This means that many of us go through our lives feeling that we have little or no control over our emotions and our desires. The emotions that evolved to protect us (by either getting us out of harms way, or attracting us toward beneficial behaviour) have ended up being a big, confusing mess under the control of a throwback, redundant version of our brain.
The big problem with being ruled by our pleasure and fear centres (I still prefer to think of these as a monkey) is that our higher brain functions don’t get to do enough of what they want to do – which, mostly, is recognising patterns, forming complex relationships, and pursuing complex solutions to difficult problems. This is what we describe as a search for meaning – letting the neocortex get on with what it evolved to do. When the monkey is in charge, we don’t get to fulfil the neocortex’s needs, and we end up feeling lost and empty. This goes a long way toward explaining why so many people become depressed – the monkey simply can’t provide for human needs, no matter how much it feels like it can. So all the new stuff, and achievements, and sexual conquests, and social status improvements (all things monkeys spend their lives doing) end up feeling like a let down – something’s missing.
So, if meaning comes from human-centric activities – we need to figure out how to maximise the human stuff and, if not control the inner monkey (because that’s probably not possible), at least learn to recognise it for what it is and to choose to act in a more human way. Compassion, is a brilliant example of this sort of choice. It’s not a monkey emotion – it requires higher brain activation (left prefrontal cortex) and a deliberate choice to forgive others, even when you feel slighted. And it takes a lot of work…
Alright, so we’re pretty much screwed up by this inner monkey – he (or she) is just trying to keep us alive, but he’s been integrated into our modern brains and still holds the command buttons. Knowing about it is one thing but doing something about it is another, so let’s take a minute away from the theory and look at some practical ways of working with the little guy to reduce his ability to take control (I originally called this “spanking” the inner monkey – US readers will get the 15-year old humour behind this, but we really don’t need to spank him, just to work around him – more like “hacking” the inner monkey). I’m presenting these ideas as “rules” – they’re not, but it helps to think about them that way if you want a system for learning how to be more human and less monkey…
Rule #1: Recognising what’s going on
This is the most important step because if you’re not aware of what’s going on, you can’t do anything about it (this goes for pretty much anything and everything). If you’re convinced that you’re a victim to your emotions, then you are. All you need to do (to begin with) is to be aware of your monkey’s actions, and recognise the situations in which it’s taking control, then…
Rule #2: Learning attentional focus/mindfulness
I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the only thing we’re really capable of controlling consciously is what we pay attention to. In other words, we can’t control our emotions or our thoughts (DO NOT THINK OF A WHITE BEAR). Did you think of the bear even though I told you not to? See what I mean? If we know what’s going on, however (see Rule #1) we can control how much attention we pay to it.
Put another way, when thoughts of white bears intrude, you can recognise them as thoughts, and then choose to pay attention to something else, or you can get sucked down the usual distracting route, where the white bear thought leads to another thought, which makes you feel guilty, or angry, and all of a sudden, the monkey is in control… Similarly, when we notice our arousal levels increasing, we can recognise that the monkey is getting ready to take control and intervene directly (see Rule #3).
Like anything, learning focused attention (another way of saying mindfulness) takes practice and effort. Here are some simple techniques for daily practice:
1) Practise paying attention to a single thing for a period of time. It helps to start with things you usually phase out from and that you do on a daily basis (like brushing your teeth or drinking coffee). Try to focus entirely on the sensations of that activity and experience it as intensely as you can. While you’re doing this, practise being aware of what’s going on around you, and inside you. A great way of doing this is to do a quick scan of your environment, and then your body, focusing on your sensations and other feelings within your body.
2) Set up your iPhone or smartphone to interrupt you at random intervals. There are a heap of good apps out there that you can set up to interrupt you randomly throughout the day – this is a great way of reminding yourself to pay attention to what’s going on around you and inside you.
3) Practise gauging your arousal level (how stressed you feel) as often as possible (use the tricks above). It helps to imagine a gauge from 1 to 10 (1 is almost asleep, 10 is wetting yourself) and to figure out where you are at random intervals during the day. I like to segment this gauge into zones: blue is 1-3 (low), green 3-6 (optimal), orange 7-8 (warning), and red 9-10 (monkey poo-flinging time). Most people go from green to red without being aware of the orange warning zone. Being aware let’s you stop and take a break before the monkey takes over.
Rule #3: Setting up a monkey “firewall” – accepting and making room, and direct action
Put most simply, a firewall is a way of stopping bad things from damaging stuff. Metaphorically, a monkey firewall (no not a literal one, although that would be most amusing) helps you stop your monkey from influencing your human brain. There are several ways you can do this:
1) Learn a relaxation technique (I’ll go through some good ones in a later blog) and implement it when you’re in the orange zone, before the monkey takes over.
2) Treat your thoughts and feelings for what they are: neurological artefacts. Your thoughts and feelings are NOT REAL THINGS. They are simply manifestations generated by your brain in response to the environment. Often they come from your monkey. We get in trouble when we take them seriously (if you think of pretty much any dumb thing you’ve done in the last week, it’s almost guaranteed it will be because you assumed that your thoughts or feelings were real and overreacted as a consequence).
Instead, monitor (yes the attentional focus thing again) your thoughts and feelings and recognise them when they come up. If they are trying to distract you (especially if they’re doing it in a way that will most likely lead to a regret), acknowledge them, then get on with what you were doing. For a thought you can simply say “ah, my mind is telling me ‘x’ again, thanks mind. Now what was I doing?”. For emotions, instead of letting them overwhelm, recognise them, identify them (instead of “I am angry” be more accurate: “I am experiencing the temporary sensation of anger in my body”), and get on with what you were doing. You don’t have to like the thought or emotion, but there’s always room for both of you. (I’ve oversimplified this deliberately; it’s not quite as easy as this and it takes some work to learn to do. If you want to learn more about how to do this, there’s a great overview of ACT, the main therapy that I use with my clients, here).
Rule #4: Making choices
If you’re aware of what’s going on, in and around you, and you can recognise things for what they are, you have the ability to choose. Choice is awesome. Monkeys don’t have choice. Humans do… The most important thing about making choices is making them: there are no right or wrong choices, just choices and their consequences.
Rule #5: Understanding the consequences of your choices
If you’re going to make choices you need to live with the consequences. They might not be what you expected. This is only a problem when your monkey gets upset about them!
Rule #6: Getting on with it
And there it is: recognise, label, acknowledge, accept, and then get on with it – preferably in a way that is compatible with what’s important to you (check out my previous post on values (here) for a refresher…)
Rule #7: Being human
Be human by practising the best human attributes, like compassion. I’m going to write more about this later on.
That’s it for now. Next, I’m thinking about writing a post on my ideas about consciousness and memetic hacking. If you’ve got any preferences for what you’d like to see here, please drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do!