Mental Vacation

Last week’s piece, Being of Three Minds, described how three brain systems, the brain stem, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex, operate with three different types of logic. The brain stem’s logic is about approach and avoidance—going toward pleasure and away from pain. The limbic system works by association. It relates one experience with another and generates emotion. The cerebral cortex is the source of conceptual and analytical thought, judgment, and imagination, among other thinking activities.

Ideally, these three systems would work together seamlessly, our thoughts would be harmonious, and we would be happy. It doesn’t always work that way. Often these systems will be at odds with each other. A desire will arise in our brainstem, be amplified by the emotional limbic system and processed by the cerebral cortex. The cortex says whether satisfying the desire is a good idea or not. Then it goes about planning either to satisfy it or to put on the brakes. It has to come up with a plan to avoid behavior that would satisfy a desire that is a bad idea, or make a plan to go along with the desire.

Some of us get a little confused about which part of the brain should be calling the shots. Some listen mostly to the limbic system and confuse feelings with facts. If they have a feeling, they make up reasons to act upon it. Others of us get too invested in our logical processes and ignore emotions. The wise mind combines reason and emotion. Both are valued. Both are applied to solve problems.

Sometimes, we may have an urge or desire that is really a no brainer. For instance, it is a work day, but you would really rather be doing something else. But you have appointments, people are expecting you there, and for various other good reasons there is no way you are not going to work.

Here is a little trick you can try to bypass the argument and get out of that unpleasant state of mind where you are dissatisfied with what will inevitably come to pass. Try to sidestep the emotional argument using visualization. Instead of entertaining an argument between your rational mind and your emotional mind that leaves you with a bad feeling, let the emotional mind have its way while your logical mind continues to direct your body on its way to work.

Maybe you have the thought, I’d really rather go hiking than go to work. Rationally, you know that you are going to work. Instead of feeling bad about it, let your imagination go on that hike. Split off that fragment of consciousness and visualize yourself hiking in that favorite place of yours. Imagine what it would feel like. What would you see there? Your limbic system likes pictures and sensations, so when it gets the images and imagined sensations of your virtual hike, it feels satisfied. Meanwhile, you keep doing what it takes to get you to work, because your cerebral cortex is running this show.

The technique is like throwing a piece of meat to a barking dog that is blocking your way. You are saying to your limbic system, “Yes, it would be nice to go hiking on a workday, but that’s not happening, but you go ahead and have the thoughts and memories that go with hiking, while the rest of me gets ready for work.”

Your visualization might only last few a few seconds, but you get out of a mental argument with yourself and you give yourself a pleasant emotion while doing the right thing.

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© 2008 Tom Barrett