Go All Adam

I’m getting a mental block today, which right away brings up a great topic.

What is the #1 medicine prescribed by all authors when faced with mental block? It’s not “finding inspiration” or losing yourself in a funny substance. The real remedy for mental block is: just keep writing and don’t stop.

I have a big reason to believe that the only thing holding us back from writing is ourselves. In a funny sense, it’s fear. But it’s not fear in the “I’m going to get shot by that guy holding the gun unless I stay put” kind of way. It’s part of something that makes us distinctly human, a reaction when we’re unsure or afraid: impulse control.

When you look at blood flow activity in the brain, you can correlate where the blood flows to certain brain functions. Otherwise, if you’re not doing anything, blood simply doesn’t flow that way. People in research experiments have been asked to control their impulses: stop themselves from grabbing a cookie, choosing a wrong answer, shouting at the researcher, etc. Researchers find that blood flows to the frontal part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. Thus we have a pretty good guess that any time you stop yourself from doing anything, that’s being done by the piece of brain right behind your forehead. But not everyone can do that.

Every (healthy) human can, but animals can’t. Just like you can’t breathe underwater, animals can’t control their impulses. How do we know? Because we’ve looked at their brains, and the prefrontal cortex is not there. It’s not smaller, weaker, or less densely connected. It’s non-existent. And that has brought us pretty far along.

Imagine this guy, Joe, for a second. Joe likes to walk out on the street a lot. However Joe has a funny Mohawk and he sees people judging him all the time (he has a thing for preppy neighborhoods.) Joe can’t help but get angry and share a piece of his mind with strangers. It’s pretty awkward. But Joe gets angrier every time, and his responses become increasingly more violent. After a week of walking the streets, what do you think happens to Joe?

Joe can’t control himself. Therefore, because he can’t behave, Joe eventually gets sent to prison — or beat up badly. If Joe had been able stop himself from punching that old lady, he wouldn’t have spent the rest of his life in jail. It’s a pretty nice thing to have a prefrontal cortex. But it’s not always useful.

The same way Joe was too out of control, we can also be too much in control. It’s easy to fall into the trap of not doing anything: not speaking up, not talking to the girl, not asking for a raise, not writing anything on your paper. Granted, it is safer in the short run. You won’t look stupid in front of your friends because she was obviously out of your league. But in the long run it means you’re slowly getting weaker and weaker. There comes a point where you have to act.

Imagine a group of 3 friends lost in the middle of the wilderness. They’re faced with a tough choice. They have to eat, but none of them has any idea what berries are poisonous. Adam, the chubby one, can’t hold himself back and eats everything and anything he finds in his way. Not long has passed before Adam gets the cramps and dies. Charlie, on the other hand, won’t try anything new unless the label says it’s gluten free, and he’s so scared of being poisoned like Adam that he decides not to eat. It takes him a few weeks, but eventually Charlie dies as well. Our only friend left is Ben. Ben is a bit smarter.

Ben paid attention to what Adam ate. He remembered seeing some blueberries, which he’s had before, and survives off of that for a while. When he’s not sure about a particular berry, he eats a very small bite. He gets violently sick a couple of times, but he makes himself throw up in time and he learns his lesson. Ben held back, but he didn’t held back too much. He survived. We’re all faced with similar situations every day.

Why do we get a mental block? Because it’s costly and painful to write things we feel are stupid or bad. Like Ben and Charlie, we try to hold back to avoid making mistakes. But unlike Ben and his friends, we’re in a situation where making a mistake doesn’t matter that much. So what if what you write is stupid? Erase it and write and something new. Most of the mistakes we make don’t matter.

The fun thing to realize is that it’s more or less the same situation every day. Most of the time, we’re not holding back from making the wrong decision about murder. We’re usually blocked by doing benign things like writing a piece of crap. The best solution is to go all out Adam on that bitch. Write everything and anything that comes to mind. Something good will come up and you’ll erase the rest. Talk to every girl in the bar. You won’t ever see them after you go home with the one that liked you. And so it goes for almost everything.

We’re going to get mental blocks all the time. The fear won’t go away just because you realize that it’s benign. It’s not your rational being that’s afraid, it’s your emotional being. And you don’t convince that one by argument.

Adam most have met sooooo many girls.