My 2 brains

There’s the lizard brain, the old brain.

And there’s the new brain, the neocortex, the pattern-finder that some people correlate with rationality.

The old brain is fast, the new brain is slow.

The old brain is cheap, the new brain is expensive (in terms of energy).

The old brain is subconscious, the new brain is sometimes conscious.

The old brain takes over in emergencies, during fight and flight, during times of high stress, during anger, passion, hate.

The new brain takes over in times of low stress, times of calm, in the shower, on walks, during a pleasant conversation and a glass of wine.

In many ways, it seems like there’s a bit of a seesaw, and one brain has the upper hand on the other based on the current environment and circumstances.

When heart rate and breathing speed are up, the old brain has the upper hand, and when heart rate and breathing speed are down, the new brain has the upper hand.

In fact, heart rate variability (the difference in heart rate when you are inhaling versus exhaling – see more here) is often seen as a physiological proxy that can be used to indicate your stress level, your willpower reserves, and maybe even the part of your brain that has the upper hand in the current moment. The more variability, the less stressed you currently are.

I’ve noticed that I seem to like risk and adventure, in general. My personal philosophy and decision making aesthetic has pretty much always been about going with my intuition, my gut, taking big risks for big potential reward.

I’ve never really gotten along with people who are cautious and who plan things too much. I like to travel without hotel arrangements ahead of time most of the time. And it doesn’t bother me when my job description is undefined to the extent that I should find meaningful things to work on.

And yet, the dislike of planning seems to be inconsistent with the fact that I am also very much into making goals. Changing myself.

I realized a couple days ago that it’s the connotation of the wold “plan” that triggers me. It seems futile (to my old brain, who is in charge of assigning futility to things) to plan because it implies an understanding of the future, which we don’t have.

Rather than try to predict a future, I subscribe to a chaotic form of forward progress: set your sites, start running in that general direction, and pick yourself up whenever you fall. That’s how I get anywhere, and it doesn’t require much planning at all.

But taking this back to the old and new brains, I realized that my dislike of the word “plan” has been preventing me from adopting some more subtle and beneficial planning-like strategies, and the internal monologue itself was really interesting to me.

For example, I don’t like the idea of defaulting to the old brain for all decisions. I would like to allow some decisions to route to the new brain, especially when sticking to goals over a long period of time is concerned.

Planning, and therefore sticking to goals, is a new brain thing.

But my old brain has cleverly planted an emotional trigger around the word and concept of planning, so that whenever it came up I would get anxious. The anxious state is one which my old brain has more control over, and it easily vetoes further thought in the direction of planning. By the time I calm down the new brain sees how poorly that went and notices the new pattern, “Buster doesn’t like planning”. And the initial trigger is reinforced.

In many ways, the word/concept of “meditation” has the same problem for me. I get anxious, the old brain vetoes the idea, and the new brain later determines that “Buster doesn’t like meditation”.

Same with “going to bed early” and “morning person”. Old brain triggers immediately and says, “lame”.

I suspect that many calming, planning-like concepts suffer from the same old brain overrides in our world. If an idea is easy to shoot down by the old brain, it will never be “cool” to society in general and therefore it has to be whispered in smaller friendly groups lest the speaker reveal their “new brain” tendencies in a world that spends most of its time in “old brain” thinking modes.

In short, I’d like (new brain speaking) to practice using slow, calm, new brain planning even when I (old brain speaking) think it’s lame.


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