Perhaps it is the winter blues, but for the last few months, I’ve had a complete lack of motivation to do anything other than exist. I work my hours, I respond to my emails and I watch TV series.
What I am not doing is anything that, upon my deathbed, I will look back at and say, “Wow, look at me in my thirties, what adventures I had!”
Not everybody wants a life of crazy adventures. For many, the quiet life of friends and safe secure familiar habits is more than enough. But I am not one of those people. I want the adventures and the crazy; it is what makes me feel truly alive, all the way out into my fingertips. I crave the unexpected and thrilling; it is what makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs, “I fucking love my life!”
It was to increase the likelihood of those experiences that I decided to become a nomad in the first place.
I know what I want. I have the means with which to get it. But there is something standing in my way. For the last few months, I have not been able to lift a finger to make anything exciting happen. I get tired just thinking about booking flights and looking for hotel rooms. No, it is worse than that. I can’t even bring myself to decide where to go. I can go anywhere, but I just can’t bring myself to research my options and decide on a destination.
Back in December, I knew that I was going to visit my family in Sweden for Christmas, and then in late February, I was going to go to Canada. That left several weeks in which I could have gone to …. Anywhere! But, I didn’t. Instead, I remained in London, visiting friends. I love visiting my friends, but I’m not exactly being adventurous here. I can’t shake that nagging feeling that I am not doing what I really want to do, and that the only reason I’m not is… what?
A Governing or Distributed Mind?
And here is the issue of this rambling blog post. Why do we sometimes know what we want, and we know how to get it, but we just don’t act.
(We are now entering the realm of pure speculations, but this is as far as I’ve gotten in my self-reflecting navel-gazing.)
In brain research, there used to be a theory of the governing mind, a place in the brain where our thought and identity sat, and every other part of the brain filtered all their commands through this governing mind which could allow or block the impulses or decisions made by various brain regions.
But the governing mind theory is falling out of favour for a more distributed and chaotic model where the mind simply emerges from the interactions from different areas of the brain. The actions we take emerge in similar ways from the collective chatter between separate brain regions.
So when ‘I’ say, “I want to go to exciting places and have marvellous adventures,” that is the voice of certain parts of my brain, particularly those that are involved with creating goals, motivations and a sense of self. But when I fail to act on these goals, when there is a prolonged disconnect between what I claim to want and what I do, then that is a sign that there are other parts of my brain that want the very opposite of adventure, parts of my brain that long for security, familiar surroundings, good old friends and quiet uneventful days.
A more common example of this mind vs act disparity is every time your conscious mind tells you to go to the gym but you simply don’t end up acting on that will.
The governing mind theory of the brain does not explain these phenomena, but the theory of the distributed and emergent mind does.
I should throw in that I have not done any research into any of this other than listening to a handful of audiobooks on the topics, but we make do with whatever information we have at hand to explain our lives to the best of our ability.
To Rule or Appease Our Subconscious Mind
So what should I do with this ‘information’? If I am correct in my analysis that I have different parts of my brain pulling me in different directions, what should I do about that?
One option is to go the route of the Dice Man, a book from 1971 about a man who develops a theory that he has many different personalities within himself, but only the dominant ever gets to do what it wants to do. The rest are like trapped spectators, destined to be forever dissatisfied. So he decides to set them free with the power of the die. At every decision he faces, he writes down six options and rolls a die, and acts out the one selected by the die. His different personalities thereby get a statistical chance of being acted out.
If you’ve read the book, you know that … well, this way of living may lead to an unmitigated disaster on every level of your life. And the ones around you. (And if you haven’t read the book, DO! It is amazing!)
The Dice Man might be a drastic option, but the core idea behind it is sound. You recognize that you have conflicting goals and wants, and you take action to find some compromise that satisfied most of them as well as possible.
Or, I could take the opposite approach. The part of my brain which is currently writing these words, the part of my brain that creates my self-reflecting sense of self, it is what really matters. The rest of my brain is nothing but a moment-to-moment gratification-obsessed disorganized reactionary network of impulses and errant emotions. It puts up walls to experiences that once there, both I (self-reflecting and adventure-starved Gustav) and he (subconscious emotional Gustav) would fucking love, both in the moment and afterwards when we can look back at them and be proud of a life lived well.
Perhaps I should turn my conscious abilities against my lazy brain and submit it to my will. I could use commitment devices to force my brain to listen to my conscious parts (adventure brain) and ignore the other parts (comfort brain).
There are many times when I have wanted to do something, but some fear or hesitation has held me back. This usually involves jumping off something, like a tall cliff over a beautiful lake. For these moments, I’ve developed the 1-2-3 technique, a simple but effective commitment device. You simple make up your mind that on the count of three, you will do it. Making that decision is something that your identity-generating high-processing brain can do. And then you count, and at the count of three, you have no more time to hesitate and you just do it. The more years that go by during which you have never broken the count-to-action pact with yourself, the more powerful the technique becomes.
But this is only good for instantaneous take-the-plunge kind of decisions. If I were to choose to rule my subconscious and force myself to live more excitingly, then I would need another commitment device.
What do you say?
So, dear reader, do you agree that there can be battles within a brain, in particular between the more conscious parts of our brains and the lower levels? And if so, what do you think we should do about it? Act as peacemakers and find compromises between conscious and subconscious wants? Or should we try to enforce our conscious will and fight inherent traits we don’t favour such as laziness and fear?