The Success Series Part 2 — Why Your Brain Doesn’t Want You to Be Successful
Before diving deep into part 2 of this series I recommend first catching up on The Success Series Part 1: Confessions of a Chronic Procrastinator for some context and background.
One of the great struggles of my life is being able to clearly verbalize the things I want in life, but when it comes down to actual doing something I constantly fail to put in the work it takes to achieve what I want. In order to really understand the paradox of how this can happen, how we can know exactly what we want in life, but fail to dedicate the required time to achieving said things, we need to start by looking into how the human brain works. Specifically, how the modern brain is actually two (actually three, but third isn’t relevant for our discussion) very different organisms with two very different goals in mind. The modern human brain is composed of three major evolutionary segments, in order of age: the oldest, reptilian brain, the middle child, limbic brain and the brand new, shiny neo-cortex. In an effort to be concise, and because I’m not an anthropological neurologist, we won’t discuss the reptilian brain today. It does a bunch of useless things like keeping our heart beating and organs functioning properly; real boring stuff, but I digress. Today, we will focus on understanding the limbic brain and neo-cortex. Here we can get a much better understanding of what is going on in our head when we create Milestone Accomplishments for ourselves, what that distracting voice really is and why it’s so good at distracting us from what we want. Before we get into the nitty-gritty brain talk please take into account I am highly unqualified to talk about the specifics of anthropology, neurology, and pretty much every other scientific topic and will try my best to approach these subjects in a researched, accurate and concise manner.
The Limbic Brain: Our Instinctual Self
The limbic brain, also known as our “old brain” or paleo-mammalian brain, is a common brain structure across mammals, which at times, tend to be the most intelligent class of creatures on earth. The limbic brain is a really, really old piece of hardware that sits tightly in the middle of your skull in a small crescent shape. Science does not know exactly how old the limbic system is on an evolutionary scale, but what we do know is that the limbic brain is what separates mammals from reptiles, so it’s safe to assume the it’s been around for a while, long before ushomo sapiens ever roamed this rock. Despite being such an ancient, neurological artifact, the limbic brain is still a very important and active part of our brain today and is in charge of one very important function in our lives: keeping us from dying. The limbic brain is the reason mammals have prospered so long in so many different environments across the globe. The limbic brain is the center of two crucial functions in mammals: our instincts and our emotions, which if you didn’t know, are pretty effective tools that keep us from dying or accidentally killing ourselves. All of our instincts are tied to very specific evolutionary drives, which, per the definition of evolution, coincide closely with things that keep mammals from dying: fear, thirst, hunger, community, sexual desire, etc. Imagine if you didn’t get scared when you stumbled upon a bear in the woods. Humans probably wouldn’t have made it this long on earth and bears would now be roaming around in suits and ties, driving cars and selling each other insurance. One of the things that make these instincts so effective at keeping us alive is two very important connections the limbic brain has with our bodies. First, the limbic brain has a direct link to our entire endocrine system, which regulates all of our hormones, and second, it has a direct link to our central nervous system, both of which it can control with or without our conscious permission. Try to remember the last time your brain asked you for permission to release hormones, yeah, never. These connections are particularly useful in times of perceived danger, where the limbic brain can completely hijack our bodies and run the show, also known as our “fight or flight” response. Think about driving in a car, minding your own business when suddenly something runs out into the street in front of you. Without thinking and before you even know what happened your foot is on the brake pedal and the car is stopped. The limbic brain perceived imminent danger, dumped adrenaline into your bloodstream and ordered your central nervous system to slam on the breaks and tense all of your muscles. All of this happened automatically, without your control. It’s a pretty efficient system for keeping us out of danger and almost anyone has at least one story where their limbic brain has saved their life without their control. This is why in times of extreme stress or danger people report things like altered perception of time, and often can’t remember clearly what actually happened, because their limbic brain took over and effectively removed their consciousness from interfering in the situation. In order for this death prevention system to work, your brain purposely keeps your conscious mind out of the situation. Sensory information is sent through your limbic brain first, where it quickly checks for any signs of danger. If no danger is found the limbic brain will harmlessly pass the sensory information to your consciousness. However, if there is even the slightest bit of perceived danger, your limbic brain will freak. out. and react to protect your body before the sensory information even hits your conscious brain. This is why people get scared of things that aren’t really dangerous but they didn’t expect to be there, like jumping from a person standing right around the corner, or a hose on the ground that looks like a snake. This is why cats are inexplicably scared of cucumbers. Your limbic brain makes snap judgments of your surroundings and acts accordingly to protect you from danger. This is the value your limbic brain brings to the table. it’s pretty good at keeping you alive in times of danger, hence you being here and reading this, even if that means overreacting at times.
Now, with all of the good aspects of the limbic brain and how nice it is to not die constantly, it also has its weaknesses, specifically that it’s not very rational and it’s only concerned with what is happening right now. The tricky thing about survival is it’s a pretty black and white subject, there is not a lot of room for debating what to do in a life or death situations. When you run into a bear in the woods it’s not a survival best practice for your brain to tell you, “maybeeeee we should run, but I’m not sure let me process some more, beep boop beep beep…”. Instead, you are running in the opposite direction before you can even think. This can, at times, lead to overreactions, but your limbic brain would much prefer to occasionally scream out loud in the movie theatre than to die. Being embarrassed is not a concern of the limbic brain. Second is that survival is a very immediate need. Your limbic brain doesn’t care about the future, it only cares about keeping you alive at this very moment. If you’re hanging off the side of a cliff by your fingertips, your limbic brain isn’t concerned over how many Instagram followers you have. It puts every ounce of your body’s energy into not letting you fall to your death. Your limbic brain knows that social media doesn’t matter if you die, so it always prioritizes whatever is going on right now. For this system to work properly it’s important to understand that we do not have much control over our limbic brain, and it is not part of our self perceived identity. Our limbic brain is not only set up to protect us from external danger but also to protect us from ourselves. So it is purposely designed to operate without our control. When our limbic brain acts, it is as if it is just happening to us, not that we decided to do something. Go back to the car example, we didn’t decide to slam on the breaks, it just happened. Because of this, anything our limbic brain does isn’t really coming from ourselves, as we aren’t really deciding to do anything. It’s an automatic system set up to react without us having to think or make any decisions. Your limbic brain is an evolutionary safety net always running in the background ready to take over at the slightest bit of danger.
The Neo-Cortex: The “You” of Your Brain
The neo-cortex is a much newer and more advanced part of your brain and is one of the key evolutionary features that puts Humans at the top of the food chain on earth. Humans have the most developed and advanced neo-cortex of any other mammals, which, while at times it may not seem so, makes us the most intelligent creatures roaming the earth. It is estimated that the human neo-cortex contains anywhere from 185 to 200 trillion synapsis (100 trillion for Trump voters). To put that in perspective, the milky way galaxy has around 100 billion stars, or .05% the amount of synapsis in your neo-cortex, which is an impossible number to truly grasp. In terms of location, the neo-cortex is that cool looking wavy pattern that surrounds the outside of our brain and has essentially evolved as a bonus brain layer around the more primitive parts of our brain, e.g. our limbic and reptilian brain segments. The neo-cortex is where our “psychological self” resides, meaning it’s where your self perceived identity is located in your brain. When Morpheus tells Neo about his “residual self-identity”, or what he looks like in the Matrix, he is talking about the identify Neo holds in his neo-cortex. Your neo-cortex is the you of your brain. The neo-cortex is where all of our high level functions reside: language, rational-thinking, reasoning, decision making, conscious thought, sensory perception, planning, imagination and voluntary motor commands. When you talk to yourself inside your head, that conversation is happening inside your neo-cortex. When you make a conscious decision to do something, let’s say for example you decide to go for a run, despite it being cold outside and you feel tired and you don’t really feel like running, that decision is being made in your neo-cortex. That feeling you have when you have to tell your body to do something it doesn’t feel like doing; you have to tell your body to get out of bed, or tell your body to stop eating ice-cream even though it’s so good, or tell your body not to laugh at a cat meme in the middle of an important meeting, all of this is happening in your neo-cortex. Your neo-cortex is making conscious decisions despite how your limbic brain feels at the moment (remember, our emotions and feels are happening in the limbic brain). Now, nothing is without it’s own weaknesses. Unlike your limbic brain, your neo-cortex would be a horrible candidate to be in charge of keeping you alive. First of all, your neo-cortex takes almost twice the amount of time to process sensory information than the limbic brain, which could make all the difference in life or death situations. Secondly, because of the relative evolutionary age of your neo-cortex compared to the limbic brain, it has much weaker connections to your endocrine and central nervous systems which means a slower and weaker response in times of danger. Your neo-cortex would rather spend its time thinking up an endless stream of thoughts and memories associated with a bear than run away for your life. Close your eyes and imagine a bear for 10 seconds and let your mind run free. All those random memories and streams of thought that seemingly come out of nowhere is your neo-cortex hard at work. It doesn’t concern itself over whether the bear could kill you or not. Your neo-cortex is the passive aggressive teenager of your mind when it comes to responding to danger, “ughhh, I soooooo don’t care about dying right now.” Despite not being the ideal candidate for keeping us out of danger, your neo-cortex is very good at other things, like all the other things you do with your time besides surviving, which for me is almost all of my time. It is the center of language in your brain, which is arguably one of the most advanced social functions humans possess. It is the center of rational thinking and decision making, allowing you to compare and contrast complex options and make decisions effectively. Art and math and philosophy and music and all of the beautiful things that humans do and create all originate in the neo-cortex. Your neo-cortex is also very good at planning and imagining things. So when you sit and think about the future, you think about how awesome it would be to finally finish that book you have always wanted to write. You think about how great you will feel when you finally get into shape and complete a marathon. You think about standing on the alter and saying, “I do” with your soul mate. All of this is happening within your neo-cortex. Your neo-cortex is where your Milestone Accomplishments originate and where you can imagine your “ideal self”, that future version of you that has accomplished all the things you want and living your dream life. Everyone has an ideal self in their neo-cortex. It’s that near perfect version of you if you could only be a little smarter, a little more disciplined, make a little more money, lose a little bit of weight, get the courage to talk to that girl, get that promotion at work, finally start that company you have been dreaming of. Your ideal self is generally a pretty cool version of you, fearless, and unbound by time and the social pressure we live in day to day. Take a minute to imagine your ideal-self, we will use it for later.
The Origin of Distraction: Why Your Limbic Brain Hates Modern Times
Now let’s piece all of this boring brain talk together. I am going to get to all the point of this, but first let’s talk about your great, to the power of 50, grandfather and what his life was like thousands of years ago. Bare with me, this is more exciting than brains, it’s anthropology! Let’s call your grandfather Hanz. Hanz was such a hot name back then. Hanz had a brain very similar to ours, except Hanz neo-cortex was not as developed as ours and he didn’t really use it as much as we do today. The most creative thing Hanz did was draw stick figures on walls of caves, so he mostly relied on his limbic brain day to day. Hanz would wake up every morning with three main things on his mind, in order of importance, and one extra thing that was less immediate but still on his mind a lot. The three main things were (1) being safe (e.g. not getting eaten by bears or freezing to death), (2) drinking (water) (3) eating. The first, most important, thing on Hanz’s mind was to not die from exposure. There are a lot of different ways you can die living outside, but the main one is dying from climate conditions, like freezing to death. It takes a human about three hours to die in a snowstorm unprotected. The second is protecting himself from animals (including other humans) that might for some reason try to kill him. So Hanz builds a hut and a fire to protect himself from exposure and a spear to protect himself from intruders. This hut also gives him a safe place to sleep for 5–6 hours a day to have the energy he needed for his stick figure masterpieces. Now that Hanz isn’t dying in the next three hours from exposure or getting eaten by bears he needs to find some water. Hanz can survive for about three days without water before dying of dehydration. He needs to find a consistent source of water and/or a way of storing water for when he travels. He finds a nice stream about two hours hike from his hut where there is consistent clean water. Now, Hanz isn’t going to die from the weather and he isn’t going to die from dehydration, he needs to find some food. Hanz can last about three weeks without food, but hunger is a strong motivator to eat more often than every three weeks. In order to eat, Hanz has to either go out into the wilderness and hunt and gather, or he has to grow and tend to crops and/or livestock. Let’s assume he is a hunter/gatherer. Now it’s important to keep in mind he has to do this pretty much every day. He has to factor in that any day of hunting or gathering could produce no food and he would have to sleep without any extra energy from calories, so not hunting or gathering for only one day creates an unacceptable level of risk of not having food, so Hanz does it every day. He ventures out into the wilderness and hunts rabbits with his nifty spear he made for protection. Dual use spear, yeah! Hanz is now meeting all of his immediate survival needs, and his limbic brain is hella’ pleased. Now the lasturge that Hanz has is not an immediate survival need, but just as strong an evolutionary drive as the above three. That is the need to procreate. Without the evolutionary drive to procreate, the first Hanz on the earth would have been the only Hanz and we wouldn’t even be here to talk about Hanz. So Hanz also has the desire to find a wife and to provide her food and shelter so she stays healthy and they can have Hanz Jr.
So as we can see, Hanz and his family are basically a few days from dying of one thing or another all the time, so his limbic system is justifiably very active. It is the main driver of almost everything Hanz does, and because it has direct access to Hanz emotions, hormones and central nervous system, Hanz doesn’t find himself lacking motivation to wake up every morning. His brain automatically gives him every ounce of energy and motivation to do the things he needs to do because pretty much everything he does is a matter of life or death. Hanz is insanely productive because he has to be to stay alive, so his brain keeps him constantly motivated on purpose. Just thinking about how productive this guy is makes me feel bad about myself, feeling accomplished for writing for two measly hours, meanwhile he’s out makin’ babies and killin’ things with spears. In order to keep Hanz so not dead, his limbic brain follows two very carefully designed protocols of behavior. First, his limbic system is obsessed with instant gratification, because in Hanz’s life, instant gratification is feedback that he’s not dying. Hanz’s limbic brain is constantly looking for feedback that he is keeping himself alive, and releases endorphins into Hanz’s brain whenever something good for survival happens. Killed a rabbit, perfect, endorphins. Found some clean water, awesome, endorphins. Procreated, endooooooorphins. Escaped from a hungry bear, ENDORPHINS! A lack of sensory feedback to his brain meant that Hanz wasn’t doing a very good job surviving and there was a chance he was going to die, so his limbic brain was constantly seeking instant gratification. Hanz slept well every night from the constant stream of positive feedback his brain gave him for staying alive. The second process his limbic brain follows is a pattern of conserving energy, meaning anything that wasn’t essential to surviving his limbic brain didn’t like and would adamantly protest. If Hanz’s decided he felt like going and running a recreational 10k and then coming home and rigorously ball room dancing for two hours this was a huge energy expenditure without any effect on his survival (e.g. safety, water, food) and would greatly decrease his chances of survival. His limbic brain simply couldn’t take that risk so would actively discourage Hanz from using energy for things besides survival, stick figure drawings obviously being the exception.
Now that we understand Hanz, and how well him and his brain got along, let’s fast forward to today. Our lives our very different from Hanz, mainly that we aren’t struggling to survive on a daily basis. The last time I thought I was going to die was when I ate a whole pizza by myself, which I’m positive is an experience Hanz never had to deal with. I have never spent a day hungry or thirsty, which I know is a privilege in our world but bare with me as that’s another post for another day. Now the problem in the modern day really lies in the fact that despite our lives being pretty cushy and danger free, and having a more developed neo-cortex than Hanz, our limbic system is structured and functions almost identical to Hanz. It’s only in the last century or so years that even afraction of humanity could afford a lifestyle where their immediate survival needs are easily met (“needs neutral”), so our limbic brain simply hasn’t had an adequate amount of time to adapt (evolution is unfortunately not a particularlyfast process). Our limbic brain is still obsessed with instant gratification and it is highly motivated to conserve energy the same as Hanz’s was. Despite not being as necessary for survival, a la Hanz, our limbic brain still applies these protocols to every day life, often in a very unproductive way. For a perfect illustration of how destructive your limbic brain is to productivity in a basic, needs neutral world let’s compare a wild lion vs. a domesticated cat. These two creatures have very similar brain structures and rely heavily on their limbic brains in daily life. Now, living in the wild and fighting every day to survive is a great place to have a strong limbic brain, hence Lions being so badass and good at surviving. The instant gratification and energy conservation protocols are extremely useful in this setting. On the other side of the spectrum, living in an environment where there is no immediate danger, you are regularly fed by a human and there is always water around somewhere, you get the common housecat, which when compared to a Lion is essentially the most useless creature on the planet. With all its immediate survival needs met, the housecat’s limbic brain is confused and by default telling it to constantly seek out instant gratification (e.g. belly rubs) and to conserve energy as much as possible (e.g. napping, literally, all day). Clearly, the limbic brain is not as useful in a basic needs neutral scenario.
Now applying the cat analogy to the difference between Hanz and ourselves, we are starting to get the full picture. Our limbic brain is not well cut out for the modern world where all of our immediate survival needs are constantly met. I told you I would eventually get to the point. That distracting voice in our heads always telling us to quit or stop or do it tomorrow or to lower our expectations is our limbic brain fighting our neo-cortex because it hates frilly bits like Milestone Accomplishments. Milestone Accomplishment are the embodiment of all things the limbic brain despises. Firstly, they are not instantly gratifying. Milestone Accomplishment take a long time to achieve and day to day they are not very gratifying, I don’t get a rush of endorphins to the brain every morning when my alarm goes off at 6am to go to the gym. I especially don’t get a rush of endorphins when my alarm goes off again at 7am to remind me I slept through the gym but have to wake up and go to work. Secondly, Milestone Accomplishments require energy that our limbic brain doesn’t like to share. Achieving something great requires a tremendous amount of energy and our limbic brain really hates giving up energy for something that isn’t crucial to survival. Hanz never wrote a book, or became a world famous chef, or became a world class ball room dancer because he simply couldn’t afford to, and his limbic brain did an excellent job of making sure of that. Today, we can afford to spend energy on things not crucial to survival and for the sake of living a fulfilling and meaningful life we should. The problem is our limbic brain is totally not on board with this program and hates us for even trying. Our limbic brain is much more content with us being domesticated house cats.
Now that we understand why our limbic brain hates Milestone Accomplishments the next question to answer is our limbic brain so powerful? If we don’t need it for everyday survival, then how can it so easily distract us and demotivate us and fight us against achieving our Milestone Accomplishments. The answer here lies again in how important survival was for humans and how our limbic brain and neo-cortex our structured. Continue the Success Series to Part 3 — Planning to Fail: Why Modern Advice on Success Misses the Point.