I’d like to introduce you to Moose. Moose is a four year-old Springer Spaniel who is fixated on his blankie. He also has a stuffed sheep which, along with his blankie, he uses to regulate his emotions. This fascinates me. So this week I’d like to write about the ‘blankies’ in our lives and the ways in which we can learn from Moose.
For a dog, Moose is moderately smart. He certainly isn’t a doggy Einstein, but he picks things up relatively easily and he’s a lot of fun. Moose’s major downfall is his extremely limited ability to focus his attention. Because, unlike us, his prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped, he finds it extremely difficult to pay attention, especially when there are competing stimuli in his environment. For Moose, this means birds, they’re his nemeses. Oh, and cats, and possums, and things he thinks might be birds, cats or possums… When he’s distracted by a ‘whatever it is this time’, he literally can’t attend to anything else – he’s simply not capable of being able to process more than a limited amount of information at once. More importantly he’s also not able to refocus his attention.
Moose is a victim of his limbic system. Like other dogs, his limited cortex results in the dominance of his emotions. Not only do they rule his behaviour, he can’t use cognition and awareness to refocus his attention. But Moose has come up with an interesting hack. He’s figured out that, if he chews on his blankie long and hard enough, he can use it to help him regulate his emotional state and refocus his attention away from the tempting distractor. He’s learnt this because, for example, when he stands at the window howling at the neighbourhood cat, he usually gets shouted at. He doesn’t like being shouted at, so his doggy mind experiences massive dissonance – his dilemma is palpable: “there’s a cat over there, if I stop staring/shouting at it, it might do something, but my owner doesn’t seem to like this. Do I stop shouting at the cat or face displeasure from my owner?”
So Moose’s solution is to divert his emotional arousal toward his blankie. It helps him to deal with his temptation to shout at cats, and allows him to sustain his attention on one thing (we call it ‘blankie trance’). The problem is that he’s now become dependent on his blankie for his emotional stability. As a result, blankie has become his main go to whenever he’s stressed. If a new person comes to the house, he’ll bark at them (muffled through his blankie), shake the blankie at them, and then chew on it until he calms down. He also gets distressed when he can’t find his blankie, and will search the house for it to calm himself down (it doesn’t help that his inability to focus means that he leaves it everywhere and anywhere and then forgets where he’s left it). Needless to say, blankie is now rather manky (actually, revolting is a better word).
OK, where am I going with this (apart from amusing doggy anecdotes)? Given that he’s a dog with very limited capacities (by human standards), Moose can be forgiven his inability to focus, his lack of ability to understand his emotions, and his reliance on a blanket for emotional regulation. In him this behaviour is extremely cute. In humans, it’s nothing of the sort. The biggest difference between Moose and a human, is the reduced complexity in his cortex, especially his prefrontal cortex (the bit that does most of the reasoning, as well as the attentional focusing). No matter how hard he might try (assuming he knew to want to do so) he’s simply not able to change these things. Humans, on the other hand, are completely able to regulate their attentional focus, to recognise and understand their emotions, to not rely on ‘blankies’ to help regulate behaviour and, most importantly, to be able to choose their actions. Sadly, many of us behave just like Moose, victims to our limbic system and unaware of the choices we make^.
Limitations aside, Moose (and his doggy friends) is extremely empathic, and almost always responds to a person’s distress by attempting to comfort. He’s able to exist completely in the moment, without distraction from worries (birds yes, worries no), and because he doesn’t worry, he doesn’t fixate on the future. His sense of self is extremely limited (possibly because he doesn’t have language), which means that he’s doesn’t restrict himself with notions about what he should or shouldn’t be. Dogs, for instance, tend to recover from illness and injury a lot faster than humans, not necessarily because they heal faster, but because they don’t integrate the notion of illness or injury with their sense of self. In other words, they experience pain or limitation as sensations or experiences, but not as a part of themselves. Consequently, they act as if they’re still their pre-injury self, with some present limitations, rather than thinking of themselves as ill or injured.
So dogs have plenty to teach us, but as humans we need to recognise that we don’t share Moose’s inability to sustain or switch attentional focus (when distracted by emotions or birds). The one thing that humans can do really well is to maintain and direct our attention, assuming we work at it. In fact, modern psychological treatments (such as ACT) are centred around recognition of the things that clamour to distract us (such as thoughts, feelings, and urges), and the deliberate refocusing of our attention back into the moment. Proponents of ACT suggest that pretty much every psychological problem results from some form of ‘fusion’ with a presenting problem – we ‘fuse’ our notion of self with an issue, and reinforce this issue until it dominates our life (usually in an unpleasant or destructive way). Using ACT, people learn to ‘defuse’ from their thoughts, or problems, or worries, or memories (rather than integrating these things with their sense of self) , and to accept* rather than struggle with the sensations that attend them. In this way, people learn that emotions and other sensations don’t need to be regulated (or struggled against). Instead, they learn to be able to attend to the moment even though the emotion or sensation is present, and to get on with their lives.
This notion of struggle brings me to the crux of this article. Moose struggles with his emotions and needs a blankie to help him cope with that struggle. Many of us carry around metaphorical ‘blankies’ in order to help us cope with the things we struggle with. For humans ‘blankies’ include booze, sex, work, television, internet (especially Facebook), other people, exercise, drugs, our phones, ‘shiny’ things, status, power, manipulation and, sometimes, actual blankies. Our most important lesson as humans, is that we don’t need blankies to help us cope. Instead, we need to learn to recognise that out thoughts are just thoughts (not commandments), that our emotions and other sensations are simply neurochemical information generated by our brains, and that our urges are usually primitive directives stemming from our limbic systems. None of them are real, none of them require our attention, none of them need to be integrated with our sense of self, and we can coexist with all of them without needing to attend to them. In other words, despite the crap our brains surround us in, we are perfectly capable of accepting them and getting on with our lives; without the blankies…
^ I’ve already written extensively about the limbic system and its effect on our behaviour (here)
* Note: Acceptance doesn’t require that we like the thing we’re accepting – acceptance is about learning to live with something, not necessarily to welcome it.