The interface to our subconscious

You know how sometimes you’re hungry and you start wondering to yourself, “What am I in the mood for?” This process of one part of the brain asking another part of the brain a question is something we all do a lot, and it struck me the other day that there was actually something really interesting and beautiful about how it works.

What’s happening here, anyway? Let me try to break it down…

  • The asker of the question is our conscious mind. 
  • The answerer of our question is the subconscious.
  • We think the question, as words, but then what often happens is that we hold up a number of images, or memories, one at a time and see how our subconscious responds to those images and memories. 
  • Q: “Thai food?” A: Nah.
  • Q: “Sushi?” A: Nah.
  • Q: “A hamburger?” A: Hmmm…. maybe.
  • Q: “Pizza?” A: YES!
  • The answers are in the form of hormones that predict our happiness upon receiving the food item in reality.  Basically, though it’s probably a simplification, our brain has a machine cranking away under the surface trying to predict the value of various alternatives.  
  • There are a couple factors that go into making an answer/prediction: the likelihood of reward, the strength of reward, the ease of acquiring the reward, etc.
  • Biologically speaking, the vehicle of the answer is a dopamine hit, a dopamine dip, or no response.
  • This is how our subconscious talks to us!
  • We don’t get to know what exactly went in to forming the answer (hence the sub- in subconscious) but we do get the gentle hormone-induced PUSH (go to it!) or PULL (don’t do it!) not unlike a sign from God that nudges us in the desired direction.
  • Think about it. 
  • How many times a day do we ask ourselves these kinds of questions?  ”Should I get out of bed now?” “Should I walk to work?” “Should I check my email?” “How should I respond to that question?” “What should I wear?” “What’s the best way to get my job done?” etc.
  • We rely very heavily on this relationship with our subconscious to send us quick answers, and we almost never go against the advice.
  • When do we go against the advice though?  Maybe when we know it’s wrong, or when we’re trying to override existing habits or behaviors with new healthier, or otherwise better, habits and behaviors.

I’ve been trying to create a meditation habit recently, and part of a recent breakthrough was realizing that I can ask my subconscious questions, listen to the answers, and do nothing. Just become familiar with what the physical sensations of these answers is like.  And how they change depending on my mood, my physical state (hungry, sleepy, exhausted, full, sick).

I wish there were words for the sensations.  Are there any words for them in languages other than English?  The feeling of an internal kick to check email.  What is the word for that?  What is the word for the feeling of dread when thinking about eating a salad?  And what is the word to describe the difference between that and the feeling of dread when thinking about doing bills.  What are the words to describe the beginning of the feeling, the middle of the feeling, and the end of the feeling?  What about the words to describe the background buzz of hormones swirling around inside our arms, legs, etc?  What are the words to describe a positive buzz of excitement under the skin, and to talk about how strong the buzzing is, and the rate at which it is pulsing (I noticed a pulsing background buzz in my skin after a long inspired work session yesterday).  How do we talk about the qualities of these answers in a way that makes it feel like we can compare notes with one another, and slowly begin to understand the subtleties of how our bodies and minds respond to internal questions, and how we make decisions, and how we negotiate changes in behavior?

I listened to an amazing Radiolab the other day about Words which talked a lot about the science that has shown that without words, we can’t think about certain concepts.  We need words in order to delve into understanding.  The fact that I don’t know of that many everyday words to describe something as crucial as how our bodies feel on the inside (aside from the very high level words like hungry, angry, hungover, etc) is really surprising to me and I’m hoping someone can point to previous work in that general direction.

Forcing it

Thoughts in no particular order, spiraling into a weird place by the end…

  • I’m trying to eat a salad every day for lunch.
  • Like many other things, it brings me face-to-face with the challenge of controlling my behavior outside the realm of habits.
  • What exactly am I “forcing” the change against?
  • Dopamine.
  • Like Pavlov’s dog, we have each been conditioned through the years to behave in certain ways that are most likely to keep us alive, comfortable, and happy.
  • The three primary goals that our old brains have been long trained to seek out are: sustenance/comfort, information/learning, and social connectedness/help.  They all directly improve our chances for survival.
  • Conditioned responses, on the other hand, are only guesses about possible improvements to our chances for survival.  They are the sum of all the things that were nearby whenever our sustenance, learning, or relatedness was directly impacted.  
  • But, eventually, both the primary sources of survival, and the conditioned stimuli, trigger the same spike of desire or dip of despair when we run into them.
  • The cumulative effect of all of this self-conditioning is a very ingrained set of programs that our brain runs. It rewards certain behaviors that it knows worked in the past, and punishes other behaviors.
  • Attempts at behavior change are really attempts to swim upstream against this river of conditioned responses to things in our lives.
  • Why would we ever want to do that?
  • Salads are yucky. They aren’t even proper meals. They won’t fill you up. They’re green. They taste bad. There’s no heavy satisfaction that a burger gives.
  • And yet, when I force myself to eat a salad, I feel remarkably refreshed and good afterwards. 
  • Next time I think about eating a salad, though… my Pavlovian response is to starve myself of dopamine for a few seconds. To feel punished. To feel sick, and repulsed by the idea.  To feel as if I’ve been bad for even thinking about it.
  • Forcing myself to eat a salad, most days, is an act of revolution against the Pavlovian response.
  • But does that turn me into a very mild schizophrenic? To fight against my own conditioning, my own thoughts on the matter?
  • Maybe way back when, piggybacking on our DNA, a little creature hopped into our genetic code and took residence as the Master.
  • Maybe the Master, born way back when puppies and lizards ruled the Earth, has been controlling minds and bodies, keeping them “safe”, steering them away from risk, whipping them when they try to eat something dangerous or stupid like a salad.
  • There was probably a shift in power somewhere between whales and monkeys when the Master was given full veto power over our every behavior.  Way before the frontal cortex got on the scene.
  • Whenever we listen to the Master, it rewards us with a zing of dopamine.  It’s like a mouthful of hamburger, rolling in grass on a warm day, a beautiful song.
  • Whenever we don’t listen, or even look at it with suspicion, bam, grounded from dopamine for a good several seconds. Enough to bring our eyes back down and remember who’s in control here.
  • I don’t like the idea of being controlled by some old clumsy, risk-adverse, monster in my subconscious.
  • Framed like that, eating a salad is no longer a repulsive act to my frontal lobe. It’s an act of rebellion and will.
  • And, strangely, the Master rewards this rebellion. Gives me a dose of dopamine, and maybe a little adrenaline. Can’t help but cheer on blatant disrespect. Maybe it wants to be free of me as much as I want to be free of it. 
  • I walked home the other night in the rain. It’s about two and a half miles, and I didn’t have a coat. I decided to just walk and see how my dopamine levels petered out whenever I stepped in a puddle (did I mention there was a hole in my shoe, and my sock was a squishy mess pretty much immediately?). It was enlightening to see how many hundreds of times my brain sent little negative zings to me trying to tell me “this is not good” when I stepped off the curb, “avoid avoid avoid!” when a drop of rain hit my brow, “when will this end, how can this end, please make this stop!” as my jeans soaked all the way through. But, because I considered them messages from the Master, I didn’t take them personally. The slings and arrows had less sting. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about rain, or being wet, or even a squishy sock. My life’s not in danger in the least bit.
  • My cat, Sopor, freaks out sometimes for no reason. We laugh at her for feeling as if her life, such a simple and safe life that it is, is in any way jeopardized.
  • How many times a day though do I react as if there was a threat when really there is none? Lizard brain. The critic. Resistance. 
  • Salads are not a threat, and yet my body reacts as if they are, every day.
  • Rain is not a threat.
  • Certain tones of voice are not a threat.
  • Chores are not a threat.
  • Getting out from under warm covers is not a threat to my life. Nobody has ever died of it.
  • Not checking email for 10 minutes is not a threat.
  • Not having my phone with me as I go to the bathroom is not a threat.
  • Etc. So many hidden tigers in the room.
  • This really old mechanism in the brain that reacts to conditioned triggers (colors, sounds, impressions, gut feelings, patterns) only know how things used to be, and has been self-reinforced for 36 + a hundred million years. It’s like an ancient racist, homophobic relative trapped forever in a deep corner of my soul poking and prodding me whenever it wishes.  The worst part is that until now I took these simple commands as gospel… true statements about the world.
  • Breaking a habit, FORCING a new behavior, is an all out war against this old mechanism, this old Master. Throwing out an old religion that no longer works.
  • Eventually it gives in and lets the new behaviors continue, once it has been proven for the 10,000th time that they will not in fact kill you.
  • It’s only there to help you, after all.
  • Eventually, the Master takes over and sends new pokes and prods to continue this habit.
  • To KEEP a habit, you need to let the Master do its work.  Let it sway you to put those shoes on and get out of bed and run out the door.  Don’t even THINK about it.  Let the dopamine push you.
  • Until then, force it.  Make a big deal about it. 
  • Hello, salad.