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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

I Know Better

A friend and father of two boys recently called and asked me to write my opinion on why we sometimes know better and yet, don’t do better. It seems that he keeps getting tripped up by knowing that in the big picture of life, his sons’ success in sports isn’t the most important thing. But dad finds himself agonizing (to the point where he almost can’t stand it) when his son isn’t being as successful as dad wants him to be (and believes he could and should be). The most bothersome to this dad is that too often his agony leaks out on his sons. He does not tell his sons that he is in agony, but he does comment on their performance; critiquing, offering suggestions, asking questions, etc.

The “I know better, but don’t do better” phenomenon is not rare. I have walked away from numerous conversations saying to myself “Why didn’t I say that?” Or worse yet, “Why did I say that?”

In my opinion, it is a pretty simple answer. It is how our brain works. One way I attribute causality to this all-too-human behavior is to understand how my brain works. The key concept in understanding what caused this father to do what he knew he should not be doing, is what he knows about and what he does with his anxiety.

If you want to skip all the mumbo-jumbo about the “why” those kinds of things happen and learn the answer as to why I believe he (and we, sometimes) find ourselves in these moments and what to do about it, skip the following and go now to the last paragraph. Scan down and look for this **

For those who like to punish themselves (as I do), read on. Here is how I describe the experience. I said it is how our brain works. The Triune Brain is a term coined by psychologist Paul McLean decades ago. Better known these days as “Fast Thinking/Slow Thinking” or “System One Thinking/System Two Thinking”. All three terms are used as ways of trying to explain how and why the “know better, don’t always do better” phenomena exists.

But I prefer the Triune Brain model. This model suggests that we actually have three brains within our skull. The first one to develop fully (at about 6 months old) is the Reptilian Complex. It sits at the base of our skull. Its primary function is to gather and sort through the four billion bits of information coming to our awareness every second of every minute of every hour of every day. Both from our outside environment and messages coming from inside our body.

Like a military radar operator, the Reptilian Complex scans this incoming information, looking for those things/patterns that might threaten our life as well as those things/patterns that might bring us pleasure. It is typically wired to be more sensitive to threat than pleasure. For most of us, it is a war-room situation. Stressful. Life itself is at stake here. Intense, anxious, scary. If you have ever woken up from a nightmare, that is a little glimpse of what is going on in the Reptilian Complex 24/7/365. Throughout the day it hits the “DANGER” or “POTENTIAL PLEASURE” button. Percentage wise, the DANGER button is pushed better than 90% of the time.

We are all genetically “gifted” from our parents with a certain degree of anxiety. There are some people who have significantly higher levels, some none at all. The latter tend to fear nothing, which may sound like an asset, but it is not. They do not recognize danger at all, with the resulting life-threatening consequences.

In addition to this genetic anxiety level set point, our post-conception and post-birth experiences can cause us to move up or down on that anxiety scale. That is good news, because we can do some things to reduce this ambient level of anxiety. It can also be bad news because life events can elevate our level of ambient (average level) anxiety.

We are rarely aware of the level of anxiety we are experiencing. Others might see it though. We will typically be the last to notice. I once was working with a gentleman who was in a negotiation with his wife and as he was talking, sweat began to bead up on his shaved head. Soon he had sweat pouring out, to the point that water began dropping off the end of his nose, off his ear lobes, and his chin. He seemed totally unaware. I waited for him to notice. He did not appear to be aware of what the rest of us were witnessing. I eventually asked him to stop and I checked in with him asking if he was ok: if he needed to take a break. He looked at me and said, “Why are you asking me that?” “I’m fine.” For the record, males tend to emote more often, with more intensity, sooner and longer than females. However, the last ones to realize it in our culture are, you guessed it, males.

The Mammalian Complex is the next part of the brain to mature by about the age of six. One of its primary functions is to decide what to do with those things that the Reptilian Complex sends its way, essentially saying to the Mammalian Complex, “You need to do something with this, our very life is at stake.” As you might imagine, this part of the brain exists in a constant state of anxiety also. The Mammalian Complex is asked to figure out what the Reptilian Complex is sending its way (about 70,000 times a day for an average human being on an average day) and what action it needs to take as a result.

The Mammalian Complex’s favorite tools are to get “big” (to scare away the threat), get “little” (hoping the threat will go away) or “run away,” (literally or by dissociating, going to an imaginary safer place). We usually have our “favorite” one. If you are not sure what yours is, ask a friend to tell you what they experience in you. If our favorite tool does not “work,” we will go for the other tools. We know how to use them all.

If the Mammalian Complex cannot find an answer as to what “it” is, or what to do about it, we freeze (as I did in the initial stages of the recent massive fire that I found myself in the middle of) and move towards a panic attack. (I have had one of those too during a near drowning experience).

Neither the Reptilian nor the Mammalian Complex has any moral system, nor does it operate based on logic. No sense of time other than right now. Accuracy is not the priority. Anxiety relief is their only goal. They are only concerned about making sure we have another heartbeat or breath.

Left on their own, if we are thirsty enough, we will drink seawater, or our own urine, which will accelerate our death. We will breathe, even if what we breathe in will kill us. If we are starving, we will attempt to nourish ourselves with anything that looks like it could be food, including each other. Both these “brains” operate, for the most part, far, far below our level of consciousness.

It is rare that we can experience these parts of our brain working. There are times when we can feel our heart pounding, the need for a deep breath, the sudden relaxation of our shoulders, our foot tapping, or our wet underarms, but these moments are rare. 91%-99% of all of the 70,000 thousand decisions we make daily originate from these two brains, and for the most part are hidden from us. Thirty percent of the time, these brains are totally wrong and another 40% of the time what they think they are experiencing, what is actually going on, and our automatic response is wrong to some degree.

Ever play Simon Says? Ever walked away from a conversation thinking that the other person was bored to death by you, only to find out later that they were fascinated by what you were saying? As a young baseball coach, I once met an idol of mine and when we shook hands, instead of what I should have said, “Hi, nice to meet you,” the words “Thank you very much” rolled off my lips. He looked at me like I was an alien, and I felt like one.

The one and ONLY mission of the Mammalian Complex is to reduce the level of anxiety that the Reptilian Brain is experiencing, so accuracy is not the primary motive. Remember that we are “wrong” to some degree, 70% of the time. And very importantly, for the most part, we are totally unaware that our anxiety is in the driver’s seat of our behaviors.

Thankfully, we have a third brain, the Neo-Cortex, which comes fully online about the age of 25. Its primary function is to control the impulses of the Reptilian and Mammalian Complexes. Logic, reason, ethics, morals, values, principles, an awareness of long-term consequences, promises, resolutions, commitments to others, a sense of duty, past and future orientation all reside here. It is the part of the brain that makes us human and developmentally more sophisticated than other mammals, though sometimes, you would not know that from watching our behaviors.

When all three parts of the brain are functioning in harmony (at least at this point in time) there is nothing that works quite as well as the human brain. Alcohol and other sedative drugs serve to anesthetize this part of the brain, so the more we use, the more that we will begin behaving like a 6-year-old in an adult body. This is the first part of the brain to go away with dementia.

A disadvantage of all three brains working in harmony is that it takes five times as long to make a decision. Imagine the brake lights on the car in front of you come on. If that information had to go through the full brain cycle the front of our car would be sitting in the back seat of the car in front of us. We immediately take our foot off the accelerator and move it to the brake. It is somewhat embarrassing when we do that when we are sitting in the passenger seat (an example of our mammalian brain making the ”wrong” choice and action.)

The brain has developed a fix for that lack of efficiency in times of what it judges is an emergency. Imagine that between the reptilian and mammalian complexes there is a trap door, which allows the lower parts of the brain to shut out the neocortex circuit, allowing for quick solutions to what the subconscious has interpreted as a life threatening (or enhancing) situation. When the anxiety level of the Reptilian and Mammalian complex (our sub-conscious) gets to a certain point, it shuts off the Neocortex’s access to what is going on. Slamming the door to our higher self.

All of what we “know” is no longer accessible. All our logic, promises, resolutions, commitments, and values are not available, we are on automatic pilot.

**(This is the last Paragraph)

So, in my friend’s case, when he is watching his sons play basketball, his anxiety level gets so high, that it shuts off what he “knows.” His subsequent thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that trouble him (because he “knows” it is simply a basketball game) are the inefficient ways (in terms of negatively impacting the quality of his relationship with his sons) that his brain is trying to relieve itself of the unbearable anxiety it is experiencing. One of the tools he will be trying is that when he is aware that his “higher self” is no longer in control, he will take a break, take a walk, and think about something like his schedule for tomorrow instead of engaging with his sons at that moment.

There are many “tools” that can be used to lower our overall ambient levels of anxiety. That is the really good news. The goal is to have fewer “Why didn’t I think to say that,” or the worst-case scenario, “Why did I say that?

Can you relate?


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