Your brain doesn’t know the difference between being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger and turning down that second piece of cake.
It still boasts the same physical makeup as our ancestors, you see. And, ok, we do have a much more developed prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that allows us to reflect and consider, but by and large, it’s pretty similar to how it was way back then. And back then, our brain had one key driver: To survive. To do this it worked on a very simple process. Avoid pain and seek pleasure – which Freud later went to town on when developing his ‘Pleasure Principle‘. Of the two, avoiding pain, such as being mauled by a wolf or sabre-toothed tiger, was far more important to survival than seeking pleasure, and so our brains developed five times more neural networks to look for danger, and ultimately avoid pain. Which is probably why cavemen look miserable in drawings – they were constantly thinking something bad was going to happen.
What we’re now left with, however, is a kind of archaic brain-function that still subconsciously scours the day-to-day landscape of our life, for threats or to avoid pain, up to five times a second. Now, this is a good thing, because it keeps you alive when crossing a road or walking through a shady part of a city where you could experience an actual threat. But for the most part, it’s not helpful at all.
All in all, our wonderful brain, in all it’s delicate intricacy and fine machinery, kind of, well, fucks with us. Big time. And most of the time, we don’t even know it. We just walk around, completely unaware of how our brain works, telling people, “Oh, this is just the way I am” or “I don’t know why I do these things, I just do.”
And this might be correct, you might not know why you do the things that you do, but all in all, on a very simplified level, know this: In the same way that your brain wants to avoid physical pain, whether actual pain (putting your hand over a naked flame and burning yourself) or perceived physical pain (which is why we experience so much fear when we do a bungee jump, for example, even though we logically know that we’re not going to die), it also operates in the same way EMOTIONALLY. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between being mauled by a sabre-toothed tiger and sitting down to paint a picture or going to the gym or having a job interview. All of these things represent a major threat – because they’re potentially emotionally painful – and so our brain starts to send us signals – from which we respond to – that are completely out of whack in relation to what is actually happening.
It’s the reason we don’t do things that are ultimately good for us.
It’s the reason why we find ourselves eating food that isn’t that great for us, or smoking or doing that whole ‘Go on then, I’ll have another glass of wine”, even though we’re already pissed out of our head thing – because it’s emotionally painful to say no to the food or the cigarette or the glass of wine. Same goes for creative projects – our brain perceives these things as fundamentally emotionally painful – because with creativity comes possible failure and disappointment and judgment. It’s far more pleasurable to avoid doing them, to avoid the pain.
Except, well, it’s not far more pleasurable, is it? Not in the long run, anyway.
If a sabre-toothed tiger is about to pounce on you right now, I’d say listen to the message your brain sends you, because it’s probably got you covered.
If, on the other hand, you’re sitting in front of an empty Word document, that will soon host the first few sentences of your new novel, or you’re considering not going to the gym or otherwise not doing something that you know is deep down good for you, I’d say ignore the message your brain sends you.
And get on with it.
(You’re not a caveman, after all.)