Controlling your emotions can be hard. Negotiating with them is quicker.
The most complex known object in the universe is the human brain. Understanding the functions of our mind and the actions we perform takes more than just a degree. I sat down to write a blog post about this when, suddenly, a massive urge to watch a Netflix series struck my mind. The battle took place inside me with both sides fighting vigorously, and I wasted an hour choosing between the two options.
Why is it so hard to sit down and perform a task without any distraction? Is it that my willpower is too weak?
I didn’t manage to write the blog post, but I might have found some answers.
What we think of “the brain” actually has many parts to it.
In more primitive brains such as that of a reptile, instincts determine behaviour. If you see prey, attack them; if you see mates, court them. These basic emotions are the responsibility of the limbic system, which handles behaviour, long-term memory, and—through a part known as the “striatum”—the emotional drive towards or away from something.
Imagine you’ve been dared by your friends to eat an entire chilli. That’s when your striatum kicks into high gear: it thinks of how cool you’ll look and the prospect of approval of your friends; a rush of energy enters your body. But then, you feel hesitation. You start to think of all the things that could go right—or wrong: you could have a heartburn, or even a heart attack. This process of evaluation takes place and involves less spur-of-the-moment decisions and more cold calculations.
This is the action of your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for judgement and self regulation. It’s the reason mammals need something more than just emotions: they don’t just do things because they’re built to do them; they also need to feel a certain way in order to get that action done.
The neuroscience of motivation is obviously more complex and nuanced, but it’s helpful to reimagine these various parts of the brain in abstract terms. You can think of the entire system as consisting of the “thinking brain” and the “feeling brain”.
Our thinking brain is the part that can reason, make calculations, and plan for the future; it works on the logical aspect of things. The feeling brain, on the other hand, represents your emotions, impulses, and intuitions. That “butterfly feeling” in your stomach when you see someone you love? That’s the work of the feeling brain.
We like to imagine it’s the thinking brain that’s responsible for all our actions, ranging from opening a pack of chips to going to sleep—but the feeling brain has a large part to play as well.
Why do you get up to do something? Usually, it’s because your guilt or excitement or boredom has motivated you to do so. As we can see when we look at the neuroscience of motivation, if you didn’t have emotions, you wouldn’t do anything. The thinking brain can suggest actions and influence the feeling brain, sometimes greatly. But make no mistake about who is in control.
The feeling brain tends to be more fickle and behave like a toddler (or rather, it’s the other way round: toddlers’ feeling brains are better developed than their thinking ones).
Like it or not, it’s also the feeling brain that usually holds the steering wheel—and it can only talk in emotions. You cannot apply willpower to every task and hope for the thinking brain to come out on top.
One is often forced to reckon with the amount of persuasive influence the feeling brain possesses. Fighting it is futile, so I try to negotiate instead. While this may seem bizarre to you but it actually works.
A few weeks ago, I’d been rigorously preparing for an entrance exam; the syllabus was thorough and the preparation time was tenuous. Finishing several topics in a day was the only way to complete the course. Undoubtedly, the pressure was immense.
Everything went seamlessly and smoothly until dusk. After learning the entire day, I couldn't concentrate, understand and learn irrespective of much effort.
The “logical brain” coerced me to keep myself steady on the track but the canny, “feeling brain” outsmarted the warnings and calculations produced by the rational part.
There was a good reason behind this though. Everything needs rest, even the most complex organ in the known Universe. I was too tired to continue learning and my feeling brain decided that I couldn’t take it anymore.
As people grow older, you might find them less likely to carry out dangerous dares. This is because their prefrontal cortices have completed developing. The brains of individuals under the age of 24 have a prefrontal cortex that is, shall we say, not yet fully developed. While an adolescent may conceptually understand why something may not be a good idea to do, they are unhindered by their prefrontal cortex and end up doing it anyway.
When an alcoholic thinks of getting some booze, the connection between the two is temporarily altered, and the ability of the prefrontal cortex to instigate any real hesitation is seriously hindered. In all addictions, the communication between “thinking” prefrontal and the “feeling” striatum is reduced. This can be seen as actual observable brain change.
Sometimes, this rogue connection is only activated even in non-substance cases, which is when people suffer from impulse-control disorders such as pyromania or kleptomania.
I couldn’t let the “feeling brain” thoughts take over my learning routine, but I also knew that I couldn’t win it over. So, I started negotiating with my “feeling brain” who annoyed me with its tantrums. Shortly, the negotiations were deemed successful as we overcame the stalemate.
We mutually decided that after the sun sets, I will limit myself to revising the topics and concepts I learned throughout the day, since work begins to be counterproductive after a point.
In this instance, the feeling brain was a force for good, acting almost like a self-preservatory mechanism. If I had forced myself to continue, my health and retention power of my brain would surely have taken a toll.
The key to hacking this system, I think, is balance. Don’t thrust your logic too hard onto the feeling brain to get things done. Conversely, don’t be a slave to your emotions and sit idle, do nothing. After all, if we have two kinds of thought processes we were probably meant to use them both!
Instead of being frozen into inaction, I’ve now learnt to run negotiations between my brain’s warring factions. Can you do (x)? No? Could you do a part? How about 10 minutes or 5 minutes? How about you do this one small task and then you stop? If the answer remains a firm no, I tell myself not to be frustrated: this is the time when I should probably back off and respect my feeling brain.
I can always compromise, and aim for smaller, less daunting tasks. After all, when the feeling brain is off-kilter, it’s a miracle that I can make myself do anything at all.