Mind Hacks 6 - Habits: We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us
This article’s title is from a famous Pogo cartoon strip by Walt Kelly published on January 1, 1972. It stays alive today because it captures a very important truth. We are all born with the capacity to be our own worst enemies. We are also born with the capacity to become our own best allies. This is because we each consist of an alliance between our conscious minds and our physical bodies. Contrary to the nonsensical message of modern culture, our physical desires do not always align with our self-interest.
Our brains can act as part of our bodies, not ourselves. Many can understand this better if we think of the brain as the hardware and ourselves as the software. However, this is an inaccurate analogy because our brains are not just our passive servants. Our brains, like the rest of our bodies, have programs of their own that use the same machinery our conscious minds do. Our brains’ initial programs only seek immediate chemical gratification. The more dopamine and serotonin, they get, the more our brains want. The brain does not share our external goals for our lives unless we train it to do so.
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When it comes to forming good habits and breaking bad ones, our brains can become who we are competing against. What happens if we don’t understand this?
“Know yourself and know your enemy.
You will be safe in every battle.
You may know yourself but not know the enemy.
You will then lose one battle for every one you win.
You may not know yourself or the enemy.
You will then lose every battle.”
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: 3:6
This competition pits our conscious abilities against the initial unconscious reactions of our brains. Our job is to win the support of our brains rather than their opposition.
The Body as Strategic Ground
Strategically, it is useful to draw a clear line separating our brain from our conscious minds, dividing “our” physical desires from “our” personal goals. Because our brains use the same machinery as we do, we can confuse their goals with our own. While we control our bodies, our bodies also control us. Our brains and bodies are the most basic means by which we build our strategic positions in life.
Our brains, like the rest of our bodies, are a resource for our conscious minds. In the terms of the five elements of strategic positioning, they are the element of Ground. Like all Ground, we seek control over our bodies to use their resources. Like all Ground, our bodies are associated with a specific Climate with its changes of seasons. Our bodies go through changes we cannot control. Our bodies are the first strategic ground that we learn to master.
However, like all other competitive ground, we must struggle to win it. This battle starts as babies as we learn to walk and talk. We do not need to learn how to breathe, drink milk, poop, or, for that matter, work our livers or pancreas. Our brains and other systems have their own programs to manage those tasks. When we are young, our brains are close partners with our conscious minds. Our brains’ desires were programmed to support and encourage our learning. Our conscious minds and unconscious brains share the common goal, or, in the specific terminology of strategy, a shared mission, of maturing.
Our first missions in life meet our physical needs to get food, water, clothing, exercise, rest, and so on. These are all consistent with what our bodies want. More advanced physical needs that emerge over time are also consistent with our conscious goals. Our brains’ desires for the serotonin released by sex are meant to help us form lasting personal relationships. Its desire for dopamine is gratified by meeting challenges and problem-solving. All these chemical incentives serve useful purposes to motivate our conscious minds.
Some of us have more creative minds. Others have minds that seek order. Some have more courage. Some are more protective. These differences may be based on chemistry but they drive different conscious choices of strategy. We develop positions in society based on our mental makeup because our varying abilities allow us to serve each other. The strengths of others compensate for our weaknesses, our strengths serve theirs.
Our brains natural desire for more motivates us to constantly improve our strategic positions in the external world. However, our brains do not naturally strategize. They only react on instinct. Our conscious minds must train our brains to have a more strategic view of the world. Our conscious goals in life are beyond our physical brains’ abilities to understand, but we can train our unconscious machinery to process the complexity of situations to help us make good gut decisions more quickly.
The Potential Enemy Within
As we mature, the initial partnership between our brains and conscious minds can weaken. This is especially true in a wealthy society that offers so much abundance. These are the challenges that Anna Lembke, Chief Psychiatrist at Stanford Addiction Medicine, lays out in her book Dopamine Nation, which we have quoted several times in this series.
As we get older, our brains learn that we have shortcuts to meeting their needs, especially their natural desire for more. Our brains learn the easiest paths to more rest, more fattening foods, being entertained, porn, casual sex, alcohol, nicotine, and so on. They become habituated to these shortcuts. In other words, we become addicted. The result is that we grow lazy, fat, addicted to screens, hooking up, getting drunk, smoking, and so on. In other words, our lives become a hot mess
Instead of our conscious minds controlling the ground that is our physical bodies, our brains, using our habits, can and do control our conscious selves. We all pay lip service to freedom, but many of us enslave ourselves to our physical desires. Our brains can fool us. They can recall lines of thought to our conscious minds that led in the past to immediate gratification. With their reuse, those mental pathways become more and more fixed as we become habituated to a certain route to “easy” gratification. If we do not train our brains, they will train us. Our conscious minds can see the gradual degradation of our lives from addiction, but our brains do not.
Like every other competitor we face, we can win the support of our brains. We can train them into good habits. By channeling our efforts into productive activities, we can reward them with the chemicals they desire. We can train our brains to unconsciously assist us in listening, aiming, moving, and claiming. If we constantly improve our positions in life, our brains will be satisfied and so will we. We must form the strategic habits that lead to better decision-making. Better decision-making leads to us bettering our lives.
I spent time in a minimart recently while my car was being serviced. It was almost all junk food and junk drinks. As I walked around, I realized that there was literally nothing in that store that I was in the habit of eating. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of items and none of it appealed to me at all. Would this junk be good if I ate or drank them? My brain would certainly think so, except for its habits of thought. I still have a terrible sweet tooth and grew up as a chubby kid, but I have worked for decades at forming good eating habits, which save me from my natural tendencies.
How are good habits formed? By the same techniques that we use to succeed in any competition. We practice small changes in behavior. We add more small changes over time. We reward our brains for what serves our interests. The secret? To quote Sun Tzu again:
Trust only yourself and the self-interest of others.
The Art of War 11:7:14
In this case, the “other” is our own brains. We must know our conscious goals and know how to satisfy our brains’ goals as well. Working together, we continually advance our positions in life, satisfying our brains’ desires for more and our personal desires for better.
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Free subscribers get one new post a month. Paid subscribers get one a week.