Some science behind HOW WE THINK and all that partisanship

Unless you are locked in a perpetual Netflix binge you might have noticed that there is a remarkable  amount of mud-slinging going on these days in politics, sports, and yes our own industry of fitness. David Brooks had a column recently talking about the vitriol being thrown about. He mentions that, yes we would hope that “people are rational, utility-maximizing creatures.” Unfortunately, he and others show that our frontal cortex, or more rational mind may not be captaining the ship. There are several factors to consider on the subject of controlling our thoughts. 

This hijacking of rational thought is partly due to the evolutionary footprint on our brains. The neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux states, “connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.” Author Leon Chaitow concurs stating “The inhibitory downward control is weaker, as by both the neural connections and the fact that phobias are more easily acquired than eradicated.” 

In basic terms, we can think that we are holding the reins on our thoughts but many times a little gremlin below is pulling the strings. We are built to survive and be aware of danger so our lower reptilian brain(often the amygdala) is really good at hijacking our thought and action process when it feels threatened. This process is heightened in those individuals with PTSD and other forms of abuse or trauma. A phrase I heard recently is apt, “If its hysterical, it’s historical” If you are a little too heated about a subject you are possibly being led by that little lizard in your brain. 

*** Note: In today's world the “threat” is rarely an actual threat to your survival. It is more likely a “threat” to your ideas, or psyche not your actual life. You could even feel a negative reaction to a person simply because they remind you of someone who bullied you when you were 10. If the environment reminds us of something undesirable in our past, our amygdala will start steering the ship.***

A second factor impacting us, is we are social creatures and there is a pecking order in our society. Humans are bred to fit in, and the desire to be at the top is strong. Brooks quoted Marilynne Robinson stating, “The reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved”, and we tend to go with whatever idea makes us feel popular. Are your thoughts individual from the group, or are you catering your ideas to match the group in order to position yourself higher? Again, we are usually not aware of this it is simply a common automatic social behavior. 

This desire to be at the top of the heap can be driven by the well known factor of low self-esteem. This low self esteem manifests itself into the classic bully character which is seen in almost every teenage angst movie out there. Today there seems to be an uptick in number of these bullies and they’re mud-slinging antics. I believe this behavior has become more common in our current isolated and distant social media platforms. People can throw all this dirt from a safe, cozy, and cowardly perch behind their screen with no threat of a physical bloody nose. There would be a tenth of the vitriol if people had to sit across from each other in the flesh and sling the words they type online.

It has become commonplace to make oneself feel bigger and better by kicking sand on an idea, person, or institution. Many of us are not full blown bullies, but do you find that you’re more critical when you are not feeling on the top of your game? If your ego is feeling a bit bruised or low try to check the critiquing. Do something to build yourself up, instead of stepping on someone else. Or even better promote and help someone else. This act of altruism has the nice outcome of boosting up two people. 

One final factor is the powerful impact of self-interest. This is especially relevant in the fitness industry because we may be making our living on one specific method, technique, or treatment. In this case we tend to gravitate towards, and seek out confirmation to further our conviction to our livelihood. We might fight against anything that contradicts that which is creating our source of income.

Steven Pinker eloquently states “Putting our moral vision(our business) into practice means imposing our will on others. The human lust for power and esteem, coupled with its vulnerability to self-deception and self righteousness, makes that an invitation to a calamity, all the worse when the power is directed at a goal as quixotic as eradicating self-interest.” 

So how do we start to check oneself of these seemingly insurmountable biological, and social influences on our thoughts and actions? Some people have this talent naturally to combat a lot of these influences. If you know these folks try to emulate and learn from them. If you don’t know any of these people try these below. 

In practice it might look like this. There might be a particular method or practice that you don’t necessarily agree with, or that you may even think is doing harm by offering up false logic, or unsound practice. If you can start to ask questions with an open mind you might end up gleaning information from a practice that you don’t necessarily agree with. Ask, “What is it that draws people to that treatment, or methodology? Are there parts of it that are helping people? Who does it help most? What purpose is it serving for the people using it?” 

You don’t need to compromise your beliefs on a method’s unsound reasoning. I wholeheartedly believe in critical thinking, but when you are stuck in a full time critic mode it tends to shut down the brain a bit. So keep your principles, but also try to stop short of only ranting criticism. 

As an example, Crossfit has been a punching bag as of late. Ask yourself the above questions and you might find parts of their practice to be illuminating. Have they not created a great sense of community, tribe, and support for a breadth of individuals? Try to find some aspects of a technique or idea that you can learn from. 

Go try out said method, try to check the critic at the door, and be open and take away the aspects that you liked, and go from there. You can still disagree but try to gain something from the experience.

We could all do with a bit more slowing down, and thinking a bit more about our actions. We can stop, and try to use what motivational speaker Sam Bracken calls the “gap”. “Between any stressor(interaction) and your response lies…a Gap, a blessed, sweet powerful space where you can choose how to respond. In this Gap lies your power of free choice and personal control.” 

That “gap” of time makes all the difference. Much like a slo-mo scene in a movie, try to slow everything down and think about where your actions are coming from and act accordingly to either continue with the initial impetus, or correct and take a more measured and calculated action. 

I’ll step down from the soap box now. One reason I wrote this is because I find myself ranting often about this or that, and have been wanting to check myself of this habit. I have been trying to use these principles of introspection. I think figuring out how our thoughts are being influenced by our neurology, society, self-preservation, and individual situation could benefit us all. It is by no means easy, but a worthy skill to tackle especially in our present partisan environment.  

A good quote to end on:

“I read, I study, I examine, I listen, I think, and out of all that I try to form an idea into which I put as much common sense as I can.” - Marquis de Lafayette

Some other reading on the subject:

Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam

How to Think by Alan Jacobs

Emotional Brain by Joseph LeDoux

Catherine Cowey