Making Changes Part One: Why we do what we do
A freak occurrence is the only way that I will ever be eaten by a tiger. If a faulty zoo keeper leaves a gate open, maybe. I don’t go to zoos that are designed in such a way that there is only one door between me and meat-eaters. If my train derails in the jungles of India, I might be taken as I walk to find help. A guy from India once told me that I should never go to India, let alone take a train, so I am probably safe.
Some people do get eaten by tigers. Of those people, I think there are two groups.
1. People that live in places where tigers are indigenous
2. Nut jobs.
I want to talk about the nut jobs.
I have a domestic house cat. It will bite while it is being petted. It will bite if someone tries to move it. It will bite toes under the covers. It has a saggy stomach that I call her furry bagpipe. She tried to disembowel me for touching it once. People that know my cat are afraid of it and the cat likes it that way. As an aside, I discovered that my cat may speak French and not English and the language barrier is the root of its animosity. That is a story for a different day.
Multiply the dimensions of my house cat by 688 pounds and then again by 11 feet in length, carry the two, add four inch canines and you have a tiger. It is a bad idea to keep a tiger in a cage on your property. I do not care what your credentials might be. Tigers don’t recognize licenses or defer to experience. If you own a tiger it is going to try to eat you. Try and recall a news story about a melancholy tiger pacing its cage because its owner died of old age. I will give you a minute…
That’s right, you can’t. There are only news stories about people being eaten by their pet tigers. Siegfried and Roy are a testament to my theory. Tigers grab things by the neck and drag them away to kill them. A tiger grabbed Roy by the neck and dragged him away during a live show. The Siegfried and Roy camp said the tiger knew Roy was a little ill and was dragging him to safety. That tiger wasn’t dragging Roy to safety anymore than he would have dragged an antelope out of harms way. He is a tiger, it is what tigers do. Every neuron firing in that tiger’s brain tells it to be a tiger. You can condition it like Pavlov’s dogs with rewards. A sharp whip will lead it to behave in certain ways for a time. At some point inner tiger will trump training.
Peoples brains can operate in a similar manner. Neurons fire in the sequences they know. The good news is that unlike tigers, we are not instinctive and reflexive beasts without hope of being civilized. Our brains are more developed.
The Brain: A dumbed-down primer so I can understand it.
I like to think of the brain like of one of those cartoon-like, touristy maps. The area’s attractions are exaggerated in scale. Instead of landmarks or theme park rides however, there are emotions, thought patterns and impulse control.
I imagine that the different areas and functions of the brain are connected by side-streets and highways. Each person is a city planner mapping their own way. A baby reflexively cries for attention. As time goes by, that child learns new ways to get what it wants, so crying gives way to things that work better.
Neurons are the vehicles of our brain map. Certain neurons fire in certain sequences and with some repetition, they become set. A new experience is like pulling off the beaten path and cutting new tire marks in unchartered territory. If that path results in a desirable outcome, we will use it again. Soon enough tire grooves off of the beaten path become a dirt road. If that dirt road continues to work, over time it will progress into a superhighway.
Some of the repeated events that etch themselves into our neural street map lead to dysfunctional behaviors. People tend to learn to do what works best, not what is best. In this case, intentionality and persistence are the only ways to undo them. Choosing to repeat positive behaviors time and time again is necessary to rewire the neurons. Rewire might not be the best way to state that. “New-wire” might be a better way. The old behavior rarely becomes extinct; that neural pathway is still there, waiting. It needs to be overridden by new, stronger connections.
I once read an explanation that was something like this: a recovering cocaine user might pull a dollar bill from his pocket and be triggered to relapse. There can be a sensory connection to the bill. The memory of rolling one up and using it to snort through and the high that came with it can come flooding back. Simply seeing the bill can trigger neurons to fire in their familiar sequence like a shortcut home. The brain of the user is taken back to where it is comfortable and bad things can happen.
The wiring of our neural pathways makes change difficult. Under stress or outside of an individual’s comfort zone, a person is likely to reflexively fall back to the behavior they know best.
When I was a little guy I went to Disneyland. From a bridge over a race track I spied other little guys driving cars. I wanted in. Soon enough I was behind the wheel. I hit that gas pedal and took off. I quickly realized that I only had the illusion of control. I could steer a little, but the reality is that there is a big cement ridge between the wheels that is really controlling the car’s direction. The neural pathways in our brains are like that. We have the illusion that we are controlling direction, but we are going to snap back to what we are used to. The only way to really drive that little car is to intentionally lift it off that guide track and take off in a new direction.
In part two I will highlight the glory of David Copperfield’s dark-art wizardry and get the reader started down the right path towards change.
I love most of you. The rest of you, ehhhhh….