How do you "out-reason" the lizard brain?
November 12, 2011 6:40 PM   Subscribe

How do you "out-reason" the lizard brain?

What strategies do you use when your lizard brain wants you to do something (or someone!) you know you shouldn't be doing?

I ask this in the context of being totally crushed out on someone who I can't be with. I haven't had a crush on anyone since I was about seventeen, so I almost feel addicted to this feeling. When I tried the "be reasonable" approach, i.e. enumerating the reasons why we couldn't be together, it changed exactly nothing––I would still be too forward with him, even though it's impossible for us to be together.

I've encountered this difficulty in other areas of my life. Have you ever tried to "reason" yourself out of a slice of cheesecake that's sitting on the table? You might know intellectually that it's not good for you, that you'll feel sick, but somehow you find yourself eating it. Obviously aliens did not take over your body and force you to eat it, so you could have stopped it, right?

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about. What strategies do you take, in your own life, to counter or redirect these powerful impulses and drives––which are not always driving us in the direction we want to take?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
i don't know if it's a good approach, but i feed my lizard brain in another way - drugs or drink or masturbation or junk food. i don't do it every time, but if i reallllly want something (or someone), then i just allow myself jollies in another arena that's less harmful/impossible/"wrong".
posted by nadawi at 6:46 PM on November 12, 2011 [7 favorites]

The only answer to this that I have ever found very useful is "don't be in the situation where the lizard brain is tempted". A lot of times the real decision point isn't when you're trying to resist some impulse in the moment - it's when you let yourself wind up in that moment with an impulse to resist.

It isn't that helpful, because a lot of the time you don't have much choice, but sometimes you do. If you have a cheesecake problem, don't walk into the place with the amazing cheesecake telling yourself you'll just get a coffee and a bran muffin. You know you're gonna give in to the cheesecake.
posted by brennen at 6:55 PM on November 12, 2011 [8 favorites]

It sounds like you try to argue with your lizard brain, but your lizard brain is not going to be swayed by logic.

Try observing what your lizard brain is telling you, without acting, and also without trying to talk yourself out of it.

Acknowledge how it makes you feel, without trying to push the feeling away. Note how it makes you want to act, but stay disengaged, and don't get swept up in the feeling.

Exercises in mindfulness, including mindfulness meditation, might be helpful to you.
posted by BrashTech at 6:59 PM on November 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

So, it's interesting because if you look at the cognitive science, basically here is what happens when you're in this kind of situation: your lizard brain, your 'urges,' if you will, is telling you one thing, and your evolved brain, your cortex mainly, is reasoning out whether these urges are good or not and telling your urges yes or no. An example used often is the cereal aisle: you're standing there and you want a certain cereal but your reasoning brain is all like, 'hey, no, that one isn't very good for you, or it's too expensive,' or whatever. And you go back and forth like this. This I think is a common experience.

The thing is, that studies have shown that eventually, one of them just wins out. For no real reason. It's really that simple, and I think we've all experienced an awareness of this. Free will and stuff aside, it's an eternal battle and it isn't clear how much 'control' 'we' really have over it. So, if you want your reason brain to be able to easily win this battle, to echo what has been said, you've got basically three options in this situation:

1) Distract the lizard brain.
2) Take the lizard brain out of the situation.
3) Force your reason brain to recognize what the lizard brain is doing and tell it to stop.*

*this is a bit of a paradox, because presumably the reason brain is already sort of doing this, as that is its function, and it isn't clear that this is exactly possible unless your reason brain were to do this anyway. Which is why I more strongly recommend options 1 or 2, but knowing what's going on in your brain may make 3 more plausible if it is the only option. ymmv.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:12 PM on November 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

People have struggled with this question for a really long time. Here's something that I posted in an AskMe awhile back, and I'm just going to re-post it here, in case it's helpful for you. It's perhaps not a full answer, but I think it gets at part of your question:

The ancients had a word called akrasia. Basically, the word grapples with the fact that often times, we do not feel that we can do what we know factually to be in our best interest. For example, we smoke although we know we will likely have health problems. Same with overeating, infidelity, and a number of other vices. We don't do them because we think they are necessarily better than the alternative. We simply feel weak in our wills to do otherwise. The question is, why do we do that? Philosophers, theologians, and pretty much everyone, have been grappling with that question for awhile.

This isn't a complete answer to the question, but I have come to think that we often grapple with competing beliefs in life, and the one that gives us the quickest and most instant gratification often wins out. For example, I believe that I should not overeat, but I also believe that I have a need to be emotionally assuaged by this chocolate cake. Which belief/need wins out? It's like Sophie's choice, and the cake often wins out if it can make the struggle stop, at least for the moment.

However. We often have events that make some beliefs hit a bit closer to home and move them up on the priority scale. I too often choose the chocolate cake, instead of choosing the healthier life. Except right after I've had a heart attack. I choose smoking until I finally feel like total crap that one time getting out of bed, get the bad x-ray, or have a friend that died. Many of these come-to-Jesus moments can switch our value system that provides weight to other sides of our belief struggle.

The trick, I think, is finding out what in life can trigger those heart attack moments without actually having the heart attack. Sometimes it's a lot of thinking, studying, internal reflection, and simply hard practice to develop habits such that we prefer something like a healthier life, for its immediate and inherent value, to eating poorly. But this is hard, and it is a struggle, and sometimes people are (I dare to say) blessed with warning signs of imminent danger that can help get our attention before the bad thing happens. Who knows what those warnings always are. But the struggle between competing beliefs regarding one's immediate needs in life is a significant part of the human condition, I think.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:13 PM on November 12, 2011 [12 favorites]

Seconding BrashTech - observe the feeling, acknowledge it, and do your best to stay in the present moment.

Rather than worry about how you're feeling - something that is largely beyond your control - work on what you're doing. Ask yourself what, in that moment, you are doing, and whether those actions are likely to lead to more problems or fewer. Once the situation has passed, then you can take time to analyze how you're feeling and why.

It's very hard to do sometimes. I've been in those situations where I've made the wrong choice for the wrong reasons and I know why I'm doing it and I feel like an idiot afterwards. But the opportunities for practice - for good or ill - are always available.

Identify the actions that are likely to lead to problems. When you find yourself doing them, stop and ask yourself why you're doing them. Then - and this is usually the hardest part - do something different.

It's much, much easier to say than to do, and there will always be some circumstances where you can't manage to do it at all. At least there have been with me. But once you get the hang of it, a lot of those emotionally-driven situations become easier to deal with.
posted by MShades at 7:22 PM on November 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Have you ever tried to "reason" yourself out of a slice of cheesecake that's sitting on the table?

No, if I feel out of control around something I have the urge to do but know is bad for me, I have to remove myself from the situation. So in that scenario I would throw the cheesecake out. In your situation, if you really want to end this, you should remove yourself from all contact with this guy, AND stalking him on FB if you do that, and fantasizing about him, etc. Eventually it will fade to nothing.
posted by cairdeas at 7:54 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.
posted by Not Supplied at 8:07 PM on November 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I can't help you with the cheesecake, but with the crush I find it's helpful to flip the script and make your thinking and lizard brains swap places. If you're thinking oh god I mustn't, then your lizard brain gets to run wild thinking about how amazing it would be. So instead, imagine the morning after and how that would feel. Then you get to think about destroying someone's relationship, destroying your own, feelings of shame or guilt or foolishness, worrying about pregnancy or disease, upsetting other family or friends, feeling used or pathetic, feeling like you used or hurt someone else, feeling like you threw yourself at someone who wasn't interested... I don't know what the "impossible" comes from in your case, but those are some common reasons-why-not. Instead of thinking you can't and feeling how much you want to, think so what if I did? and then try to really feel the aftermath you want to avoid.
posted by moxiedoll at 8:11 PM on November 12, 2011 [18 favorites]

Oh just remembered this series of articles on self sabotage that might help. I know you're not just talking about self sabotage, but it covers some of the same ground.

For example, some people might eat the cheesecake to prevent an 'emotional cascade' where negative emotions snowball.
posted by Not Supplied at 8:13 PM on November 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

What we have here is, if you'll pardon the gender, a classic brain vs. penis chess match. You have to unleash your inner Seinfeld.

Find fault with the person you're crushing on. Look for bad habits ("She eats her peas one at a time!"), weird smells, terrible taste in music, unfortunate haircut—anything that turns you off, no matter how petty.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:42 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm with moxidoll: Feed your lizard brain some lizard-brain level arguments.

Lizard Brain: Eat all the cake!
Monkey Brain: Access: Horrible memory storage locker. Mighty indigestion, stomach cramps DEPLOY! Teeth will fall out from sugar! Root canal memories - ENGAGED.
Lizard Brain: ABORT ABORT!

Lizard Brain: Put that dude's wang in my squishy bits now! Now now now! Many wangs!
Monkey Brain: Remember the two-stroke wonder we hooked up with at that christmas party? ACTIVATE: One sided orgy disappointment! Itchy pants memory EXECUTED! Office Walk of Shame - INSTANT REPLAY!
Lizard Brain: ABORT ABORT!

It's like arguing with a moron. Mostly, when you try to reason yourself out of something, you're trying to explain things in language too complex for your lizard brain to understand. I don't try to explain conductivity and neural structure to an idiot, I just tell them sticking a fork in a socket is BAD PAIN IN ALL THE PLACES and kind of take it from there.
posted by Jilder at 11:07 PM on November 12, 2011 [34 favorites]

Agreeing with the acknowledge, remember/project, and avoid tactics recomended above. I would also suggest avoiding alcohol and other drugs/scenarios that tend to limit impulse control. Sometimes that monkey brain is down for the count the second the lizard brain can undermine it by saying "it's cool bro, you're drunk/high/have low blood sugar. Just let ol' Lizzie do the driving/talking/sexting."
posted by emilycardigan at 11:59 PM on November 12, 2011

I deal with it in part via diversionary approaches along the lines nadawi mentioned, but also by cultivating a sense of pride in the very act of wrestling the old lizard to the ground. I remember how good I felt on previous occasions when I'd done the right thing in spite of very much wanting to do the wrong thing. When this becomes a source of almost unthinking pleasure in itself, you've developed a handy tactic. I suppose it's also another diversionary one, in a sense. Anyway, it works for me. Usually.
posted by Decani at 3:53 AM on November 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think the standard line for this kind of situation is: "Logic can persuade, but only emotion can motivate." The conclusion, then, seems to be to replace one emotion (craving) with another, more positive one. Jilder has some great variations on "feed your lizard brain some lizard-brain level arguments." What I often do is enlist a friend to help me. Can't resist the cheesecake? Ask a friend to take it away where I can't see it, or split it with me so I only eat half of it. Can't resist the crush? Ask a friend to come with me and distract me while I'm in the presence of the crush, or go out for a fun day of sightseeing together without the crush, etc.
posted by danceswithlight at 7:17 AM on November 13, 2011

What needs reasoning with isn't the lizard brain--its the regular brain. Tell your regular brain that you don't have to ACT on the feelings sent from the lizard brain.

How to do this? Very simple. Next time you have the crushing feelings, anywhere, acknowledge those feelings without accepting them as being a truth you must act on. Keep focused on the feelings and actually "feeling" them and on not reacting to them. Let them possess your whole body but make no moves. If your mind indulges them with a fantasy, note it, stop the fantasy and get back to feeling the feeling without reacting to it.

Do not reason with the feelings. You are engaging them and whipping them up.

Practice this, over
and over again. The crush will dissapate faster than you might think.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:37 AM on November 13, 2011 [7 favorites]

This probably doesn't work for a lot of people, but some people set hard rules.

For everybody, there are simply lines they will not cross. One option is to start drawing those lines a little closer to your everyday life, then realize you're being a hypocrite (if hypocrisy bothers you) or letting yourself down when you fall short of your own personal standards.

Encouraging yourself to walk away is also another option. Remembering that losing control isn't worth it, and one can always walk away. Always.
posted by Strudel at 7:55 AM on November 13, 2011

Yes, as others have said distracting yourself or avoiding tempting situations to begin with are important strategies. I also second moxiedoll's and Jilder's great suggestions. I would add that it might be helpful to create some quick reminders to bolster your resolve in the moment. Do the kind of reflection/memory-recollection that they recommend, and find a few words or images that sum up and evoke those oh-yeah-now-i-don't-want-to-do-this-as-much feelings for you. Write down your few reminder words/sentences/images/whatever and carry it with you in your wallet, or put them on a Post-it on your computer. You're not trying to argue with your lizard brain, you're trying to defuse its Gimme Yes Want feelings by invoking lizard-level No Don't Want Bad feelings.

You might want to get help from a friend too. Is there someone you can talk about all this with to defuse the "Oh we mustn't but it would be so sweet" fantasy of it all? Bonus points if this friend can (lovingly!) help you experience your fantasy/crush as unsavory and unpleasant.
posted by aka burlap at 8:32 AM on November 13, 2011

I read an article that said to do math problems to activate the logical brain, taking the focus from the lizard. Makes some sense; haven't tried it yet.
posted by theora55 at 10:16 AM on November 13, 2011

Ironmouth has it; just because you're feeling something doesn't mean you have to react to it. Next time you feel this, instead of just reacting and getting wrapped up in the feeling, try to break down the feeling. Figure out where it's coming from, what's motivating it, and then deal with those impulses individually. Give yourself a bit of a remove, and observe those feelings as though they're happening to someone else.

It's a bit cheesy, but I've found that a line from Firefly sometimes helps in these situations: "This is just a moment in time. Step aside and let it happen." Acknowledge the existence of the desire, then move on, knowing that you don't have to react to everything.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 11:26 AM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nthing ironmouth. Accept the feeling and do not act. This is an emotion-centered form of mindfulness and helps move you towards boredom with the feeling.

Also nthing suggestions to:
- visualize emotionally salient negative consequences.
- give your lizard something else pleasurable to focus on.
- remove yourself from the situation.

Takes effort. Good luck.
posted by ead at 4:31 PM on November 13, 2011

« Older Should I continue giving my baby breast milk, even...   |   Google Voice Account Lost Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.