Thinking and Feeling

Thinking and Feeling

A bunch of people are pissed off with me about saying drugs are cool, which is a perfect opportunity to write about thinking and feeling.

I’ve talked about the paleomammalian brain before: the part of us that evolved before our frontal lobe. The part that’s ruled by passion, and won’t let you eat Chinese food anymore even though your comparatively emaciated neocortex wants you to.

Introspective humans like you live in your neocortex. That’s why your life experience feels essentially rational and coherent from the inside. That’s an illusion. The reality is that “you” are perhaps hundreds of competing “yous.”

Despite the persistence and intensity of the rational “yous,” those “yous” are perhaps the easiest to knock off kilter. The you that wants to lose weight is no match for the you that wants to consume carbs at all costs. The you that panics in tight spaces can crush the you that knows the best thing to do is breathe and be calm.

The Feeling You is antiquated and sometimes counter productive, but it’s powerful. It has access to modes of thinking can process massive and varied input—far more our puny neocortex. It takes all this input, and it outputs what is often the best answer. Except it never tells us what to do exactly, just how to feel.

The Thinking You also has strengths and weaknesses. It can disconnect us, it can get us stuck in a loop of dysfunction, and if we rely on it too much it can lead to a life of doing the “right” things but still ending up miserable. On the other hand, it is also the only part of you capable of forming and executing an analytical plan, of building the technology upon which we’ve come to rely, of consciously choosing a path that you find meaningful.

The trick is to get the Thinking you and the Feeling you to cooperate.

Your Brain as a Rocket

Thinking is like the steering wheel that can point you in the right direction. Feeling is the rocket fuel that pushes you in whatever direction you’re pointing.

A perfect example is one of my more popular essays, 5 Steps to Overcome Procrastination Forever. The gist is that you:

  1. Choose a task you want to accomplish but that you’ve been putting off.
  2. Imagine that the task is complete.
  3. Take the time to really feel great about the completed task.

If you do those steps, you find that you’re literally unable to stop yourself from completing the task. Why? Because you’ve consciously chosen your goal, then you harnessed the power of your limbic system by taking a moment to associate a warm and fuzzy feeling with the concrete goal you thought about.

I hadn’t gotten into brain stuff much at that point in this blog, but that is the logic behind what I wrote.

The thing about rockets is that once they’ve started they aren’t going to stop. If you steer correctly you’ll end up in higher orbit. Good for you. But if you misfire, you end up disintegrating in the atmosphere over the Pacific. We’ve all experienced a couple disintegrations.

Just like you can’t help but clean your messy desk once you’ve harnessed the Feeling Rocket, you also can’t help but gorge on a gallon of ice cream, waste another day playing video games, or read yet another self-help article that makes no tangible impact. Unless you take control of that powerful limbic system, it will push you down paths your rational mind knows are hurtful.

Personal Development and Pathology

Entire classes of psychological issues and personal development roadblocks can be explained by the conflict between the thinking mind and the feeling mind.

You want to get fit, but you can’t motivate yourself to exercise. You know germs won’t kill you, but you still need to disinfect your kitchen counter three times daily. You know the worst possible outcome is “no,” but you can’t force yourself to chat up that hotty.

Coaches make buko bucks just keeping people on track to achieve goals that they’ve already chosen and already know how to complete.

Why?

Because steering yourself toward a goal that you think is worthwhile isn’t enough. You need that emotional fire under your ass to actually push you there. Push as in “push motivation.”

Firing the Rocket

Activating your limbic system is a wide topic, but let me leave you with one actionable technique called Heart Breathing.

You can use Heart Breathing to either:

  • Produce a sense of calm wellbeing when that seems difficult or impossible.
  • Anchor an emotional response you want to encourage. If you go out of your way to feel gratitude for your life, you can heart breathe to anchor that gratitude so it comes to mind effortlessly in the future.
  • How to Heart Breathe:

    1. Relax each part of your body in turn, beginning with your legs, until you finally relax all the muscles in your face.
    2. Put your hand over your heart, and gently rub it in a small, circular motion.
    3. Take about 4 seconds to inhale through your nose, then release the breath through your mouth for another 4 seconds.
    4. As you breathe, visualize your breath going into your heart, instead of your lungs.
    5. Continue slowly breathing into your heart, fully relaxed, except the small circular motions with your hand. Do this as long as you want, but for at least two minutes.

    When you’re finished breathing, the stew of happy chemicals swilling around your brain will overwhelm your rational mind with well being.

    Back to Drugs

    It’s not enough to think “my perception isn’t reality.” Some people need that emotional jolt of realization, when the fact that the world you live in is mostly unknowable becomes emotionally real, not just a theory.

    That’s why learning theories can never replace real experience for humans: we have to absorb the entire emotional process of the experience before we can truly understand what it’s like to be disfigured, or rich, or poor, or whatever. Anything less and we just don’t fully believe it.

    Drugs are a powerful and dangerous way to anchor feelings into your limbic system. Powerful when you use MDMA to anchor feelings of self worth and gratitude. Dangerous when you use cocaine to anchor feelings of invincibility and intense longing.

    Drugs allow you to make what your frontal lobes have thought about emotionally real.

    And for that, they are invaluable.

    Responses

    1. Pete ()

      As a quick aside, most people who get grumpy about drugs make two separate errors.

      One is just an issue of labels. Our brain uses semantic labels to broadly categorize and judge classes of things, and the labels generally correspond to words (which is why learning a different language can make you think differently). We call pot a drug and we call heroine a drug, so they are both drugs. If drugs are bad, pot and heroine are bad. If drugs are good, pot and heroin are good.

      But that’s like saying aspirin and arsenic both relieve headaches because they both come as white pills. Some chemicals like arsenic and meth ravage your mind and body until you die. Some chemicals like THC make you relax and giggle.

      So drink your Miller Lite and get over it.

      The second error comes in the form of “I want to keep a clear mind,” which is obvious bullshit. We alter our state of mind a billion times a day, so just altering it won’t hurt.

      The fear then, is that it will do permanent, irreversible damage. Almost no drugs do that when used once, and many drugs have been proven by any reasonable measure to be entirely harmless under normal use conditions.

      What’s actually happening is that you formed a bias against the label “drug” when you were prerational, then you generated a bullshit justification for your irrational belief after the fact.

      It happens to everyone. What are you going to do about it? (Reply)

    2. Jake ()

      great post as always Pete, its a shame psychotropic drugs are such an ad hominem topic in western society when they have so much potential and power to benefit human kind.

      an eye opening book on the evils of the war on drugs (note, the evils on the WAR being waged not the drugs themselves) is Noam Chomskys – An American Addiction

      if you come down to Ecuador ill hook you up with a Shaman for a spirit journey on San Pedro or Ayahuasca ;) (Reply)

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