[as yet untitled]
A blog type thing
You may notice the lack of a comma. This is intentional. I am not instructing you to train your brain and then attempting to endear myself to you with a canine nickname.
I am, however, instructing you to train the dog that is your brain.
How is your brain a dog?
Our brains play at being unrivaled feats of biological coalescence. But they’re idiots. They’re motivated by the consumption of things that destroy them, they hate things that improve them, and they’ll make spurious connections between completely unrelated phenomena in a vain attempt to make sense of an entropic world their measly aggregate of squishy electrical components cannot begin to fathom.
And said connections bring me to Pavlov. Setting aside his deeply upsetting lack of empathy or ethics as far as his test subjects, the now-infamous “Pavlov’s dogs,” were concerned, his discovery of psychological association is both valuable and the reason for this post’s bizarre title.
I’m certain most of you reading have at least a vague idea of what Pavlov’s big contribution to psychology is, but for those that would like an introduction or a refresher, here you go:
Disturbing specifics aside, Pavlov’s work consisted of bringing food to dogs and observing that they salivated every time he did so. Had this been his only contribution, we wouldn’t be discussing this, of course, but where things got interesting was when he began to introduce a second stimulus alongside the food. He rang a bell every time he fed the dogs. Soon, he discovered that the dogs had come to interpret “bell” as “dinner time,” and he only needed to ring the bell to induce salivation. In other words, the dogs’ brains had developed an unconscious response to a stimulus unrelated to food but for its timing.
And that brings us back to training the brain dog. Our brains do the same thing. The American Psychological Association rates a dog’s intelligence as roughly equivalent to a human toddler, and while our conscious brains eventually grow beyond that level of intelligence, our unconscious brains, consisting in part of our faithfully immature amygdalae, never do.
They are every bit as stupidly prone to association of coincidentally simultaneous stimuli as a dog, our lives are a massive Pavlovian laboratory, and stress is a very real and very problematic potential association.
Throughout my career up until more recently than I care to admit, I have been a chronic procrastinator, and I still must very diligently fight this tendency more or less every day. And one of the biggest reasons for this is that procrastination inevitably leads to massive amounts of utterly avoidable and completely unnecessary stress.
Think about what this means. If you procrastinate on doing work, be it school work, paying bills, cleaning, or growing your business, when you finally get around to it, the task will be exponentially more stressful than it ever needed to be. We all know this. Most of us have done this. Most of us still do. And while your conscious brain knows that the stress induced by this tendency stems strictly from the timing of the task, your toddler-y lizard brain doesn’t. And guess which one fires off the good old stress response when it comes time to do work again? Hint: It’s not the one with any degree of self-awareness.
Which means that the more you procrastinate, the more you’ll come to view otherwise mundane and eminently doable tasks as more stressful than they actually are, the more you’ll avoid them as a result, the more you’ll induce the undue stress that comes with working under crunch (something else we’ll talk about in a future post. Teaser: Crunch doesn’t work and is stupid) at the last minute, and the more you’ll reinforce the cycle.
So what does this look like? Let’s use myself as an example. As a voice actor I have two very clearly defined workspaces. My booth, and my desk. If I induce excessive stress by procrastinating, then the overwhelming percentage of the time I spend in either space comes with a steaming dollop of cortisol. And eventually, I won’t even need the stimulus of last-minute operation for my brain to soak itself in stress hormones. I’ll just need to sit at my computer with Reaper open or stand at the threshold of my booth, and boom, instant flight response. Which makes staying ahead of schedule much harder because now I have to muster the energy necessary to tamp down the worries the screaming dog lizard that for some reason gets to dictate how I feel about stuff before I even have a chance to shake a can of pennies at it and tell it to lie down.
So what’s the secret? Well, anybody that says “just stop,” clearly hasn’t grasped the point of this article, and is beyond my help. Maybe one of you out there who does get what I’m driving at can make them get it? Because I really don’t care to. My point is, and this is one I will probably make frequently, we don’t exercise the degree of control over what our minds do anywhere near as much as we want to believe, and developing the humility necessary to acknowledge that limitation is key to developing awareness of our dumbest unconscious habits. Now awareness is not, on its own, curative, but it is the first tool in an arsenal of tools we can assemble to gradually dismantle the faulty lines of what could only very generously be called logic the reptilian dog-child at the helm of half of our brain poised to turn our mind into a needlessly fearful cognitive Voltron (whose catch phrase I like to imagine is “and I’ll form the stupid!”) upon working its way into our consciousness routinely assembles in an attempt to protect itself from nonexistent threats.
For me, an additional tool is exposure therapy. On my worst days, I’ll record one audition or a couple sentences that take all of two minutes or less to record, then step out, breathe, and repeat. Maybe take a quick walk, and gradually extend the length of time I spend in there until the scaly ball of furry idiot brain puts itself to bed.
I don’t know what tools you’ll need. Feel free to use mine if it works. No need to reinvent the wheel if you’ve already got one, right? But whatever ends up in your toolbox, the only way you can really hope to assemble one is if you recognize the problem for what it is. Until you do, you’ll probably just end up trying to pound nails into metal tables with the plastic part of a cordless drill, which not only won’t accomplish anything, but will probably just lead you to believe the tools you’ve already got are broken.
So know you brain.
So you can train your brain.