The brain is wired to automate our thoughts and our actions whether we like it or not. So instead of fighting against our nature, why not learn how it works and use it to our advantage? This article discusses why and how to do just that.
Chinese Finger Traps
The Chinese Finger Trap is a toy typically given to unsuspecting children (or unknowing adults) as somewhat of a joke gift. Dating back to 1870, this bamboo cylinder shaped device is wrapped in such a fashion that purposefully deceives the brain into thinking it understands how it works, which, in turn, is exactly what traps them.
For Americans, as a kid you may have seen these at your local Chuck E. Cheese as a prize for winning 25 tickets (probably 50 now; Inflation + me getting old) thinking it’s some noise-making device you can go home and annoy your parents with. After turning in your tickets, the minimum wage earning 16-year old kid (who looked 35 to you at the time) handed you the toy, and it probably took you about 3 seconds to realize you had been deceived.
Sorry, NO RETURNS. Plus, the moody adolescent behind the counter is already in the breakroom drinking a slurpee.
Transaction: Complete. He’s done with you, peasant.
Confused and coming down from the sugar rush of eleven Laffy Taffy’s you consumed when mom wasn’t looking (NOTE: I love banana flavor, and I don’t care who knows), you still had the wherewithal to return to the prize counter to re-read the name of the toy you were just swindled into buying.
*Reads the unmistakable words “CHINESE FINGER TRAP”*
*Looks at the toy*
*Looks at the title*
*Looks back at the toy, then at your hand*
*Slowly puts finger in one end…*
You weren’t sure what would happen when you did that, but somehow you didn’t realize that the Chinese Finger Trap would actually trap your finger. No worries – you’re a smart 2nd-grader, so you can find a way out. Better try sticking your other finger in the opposite side too…
…now you’re truly stuck, and your parents are far away, back in the food court counting down the minutes until they can leave with exhausted children who hopefully can’t find them for the rest of the day. Now you have a choice to make:
- Walk like a Tibetan monk all the way back to mom and dad so they can rescue you, or…
- Figure this out
You look out to see a puddle of melted Blue ICEE (The best flavor; I’ll fight anyone who says differently) all over the staircase and only pathway between you and your freedom. Can’t risk walking up those stairs without being able to use the railing. Beyond that, a flock of Kindergarteners are entering into the main play area where you currently reside – alone, stuck, and afraid.
You only have one choice – summon your inner Hercules and puuuullllllll!!!!!!
Only, it doesn’t work. In fact, the pulling seems to make it worse! The more you exert your energy on pulling outward, the more trapped you become. Mom and dad are out of sight, you can’t leave where you are, and asking your friends for help would result in inevitable embarrassment and ridicule that only children can do so hurtfully and accurately.
What do you do? Hold onto this thought…
Energy Usage of the Brain
How do Chinese Finger Traps and the brain have anything to do with one another? Don’t worry, I’ll bring it all together. Read on…
Here’s an interesting fact – even though our brains weigh about 2% of our overall body weight, it uses about 20% of our body’s daily energy expenditure. Much of this energy usage goes to decision-making, critical thinking, stress, willpower, and other thought-processing needed to function in daily life. With that said, newer thoughts, decisions, and choices are more taxing on the brain than habits, automated thinking and actions. Naturally, the brain prefers the latter (Automation) to the former (New thoughts/actions), and it seeks to create habits out of everything we do, whether we realize that or not.
Think of the difference between the energy required to have a 60-minute conversation with a person you just met compared to a conversation with an old and familiar friend – completely different levels of being “on” for the conversation because being “on” requires more cognitive restraint, processing power, active listening, engaging and more (High-energy expenditure). Being around someone who already loves and respects you provides an arena for more comfort and an ability to be yourself (Low-energy expenditure).
Or how about when you first learned to play a new board game at a get-together at your friend’s house? “It will be fun!” she said. You sheepishly agreed after your 4th Grapefruit Rosé Mimosa, and now you’re staring into the wide eyes of an excited twenty-something who can’t wait to explain to you a brand new game with a bunch of rules that you now have to listen to, process, and apply in the next 5 minutes.
“OK, ready?!” She asks with too much enthusiasm for 11:48 AM on a Sunday.
“Let’s do it!” you say as you gulp down half of your 5th flute.
The Dude, I’m never gonna get this feeling you have in that moment is literally your brain trying to push back against a new source of information that is disrupting the automated flow of thinking and doing you’ve been enjoying through the day, especially as the booze continues to block the neurons in your brain.
It takes a few times, you mess up and forget as you’re playing the “practice rounds”, but through repetition, encouragement, and reward, you start to get it! Maybe you win a round and celebrate with another tasty beverage. What you may not realize is that you are engaging in the very way the engineers of the game designed it – so you will want to do it again and again. Very quickly, your brain is migrating the components of this game – which felt new 30 minutes ago – to your long-term memory structure. The more positive ties to that event – a great vibe, delicious snack, flirting with her new neighbor you not-so-subtly suggested she invite – all enhance the already solidified memory.
What was temporarily a taxing event in your life has now become a fun, net positive activity that has somehow transformed from something that strained your brain to something that flowed smoothly through the circuitry within your head.
You learned, applied, enjoyed, felt rewarded by, and repeated it…so the brain automated it-
Delegate! Delegate! Delegate!
Henry Duhigg writes in his landmark book The Power of Habit about a man named Eugene Pauly who, at the age of 70, had a portion of his brain surgically removed after it was damaged due to a bout with viral encephalitis. What happened after that has made Eugene one of the most interesting case studies in the history and study of neurology, habit change and memory.
Eugene left the hospital a fully-functioning adult with one major caveat – he was stuck in time, unable to recall any occurrences after the hospital stay.
Trying to establish some semblance of normalcy, his wife would occasionally drive them to a restaurant for dinner. They would sit at the table, and he would forget where they were or how they got there. When he would come in for a doctor’s visit, the Physician would ask him which turns he took down the halls, what the colors of the walls were, who greeted him upon arrival, and he would have no clue. When he would see an object in a room that reminded him of something of his past, he would repeat the same thought to his wife every few minutes as if it were a new thought to him…because it was a new thought to him. Essentially, his memories were being wiped clean every couple of minutes.
Here is where the story gets really interesting –
Eugene and his wife would go for walks every morning around the same time and on the same route. She thought it would be helpful and good for Eugene to get some physical exercise and fresh air. So day in and day out, they had the same routine. Wake up, get dressed, walk the route, come home, eat breakfast, and repeat the next day.
This went on for a while until one morning when Eugene wandered off on his own. Upon discovering that he was not in the house, his wife frantically scoured the streets, pounded on neighbor’s doors, and eventually ran back home to call the police so they could begin a search for him. With Eugene out in the world with no ability to remember where he came from just a minute or two before, things could get very bad very quickly.
As his wife burst through their front door, she found Eugene there, calmly eating breakfast and watching television as if nothing happened…because nothing did happen…that he could remember. Eugene had walked the route himself, made breakfast, and turned on the TV alone, for the first time, though he had no recollection doing it.
How could this be?
His wife was, of course, relieved, but she also wondered how he was able to manage it. Doctors, befuddled and amazed, immediately got to work on figuring out how Eugene knew which route to take when he couldn’t remember more than a couple minutes prior to any given moment. One doctor went on Eugene’s morning walk with him, all the while asking him questions about where he lived, how he gets home, what landmarks were along the way, etc.
Eugene couldn’t answer.
Yet, he somehow knew where to turn. His brain, doctors later found, moved the memories of those walks into one of the most ancient parts of the brain – the basal ganglia – to store memory and automate his actions when it came to walking that route, making himself breakfast, watching TV, and other habitual practices.
Doctors were amazed. Researchers couldn’t get enough, and as years passed, Eugene would never be able to understand (for more than a couple of minutes) the impact he had on anyone and everyone who ever benefited from studying his life. Eugene died some years later, and his brain has become one of the most famous to have ever existed. The study of Neuroscience and Habit Change have been forever changed thanks to him.
The case of Eugene Pauly is a powerful example of how wired the brain is to delegate repeated thoughts and actions into automation. To ignore this is to ignore our nature and would be a disservice to anyone seeking long-term change in their life.
What Can We Learn From This?
This is one of the most powerful examples of the lengths that the brain goes to automate our thoughts, memories, and behaviors.
It is natural for the brain to look for every opportunity to delegate conscious thought to the parts of the brain that dictate habit formation and automation of thought. It is literally trying to lower its energy expenditure and take the path of least resistance by laying the path of least resistance.
When you’re frustrated and want to quit a new activity, there is actually nothing wrong with you. This is as natural as life itself. What you may come to realize, however, is that putting in the effort of engaging with these new activities to the point of creating new habits is actually the key to reducing stress and strain on the brain for three reasons:
- Obvious Reason: Healthy habits produce positive outcomes: Physically, mentally, emotionally, monetarily, etc.
- Not-So Obvious Reason #1: The more long-term memories you have, the easier it is to make connections to new ones in the future, and the less taxing it is on the brain to receive and process new information.
- Not-So Obvious Reason #2: The brain can put tasks we once found difficult (i.e. willing ourselves to meal prep, workout, wake-up early, manage a budget, etc.) into “auto-mode” – the net effect requiring far less brain processing power than before. Essentially, our brains are converting gas-guzzling F-150’s into a Hybrid vehicles without losing any of the size or strength.
I am a big believer in the concept of being transformed by working towards something. I don’t believe that rest and relaxation (though necessary) is edifying for more than a short while. With that in mind, since we are oriented towards evolving and growing, one could make a strong argument that pushing against the following process is not only detrimental to a good life but also unnatural to life itself:
- Absorbing new information
- Applying it through repetition and reward
- Moving it to long-term memory and habit
Here is why: Discipline actually generates more energy than it uses.
Have you ever noticed that highly disciplined, high-producing individuals are also the most energized? Somehow their superior activity levels don’t tire them out as much as much less activity tires out the general population.
Given this thought as well as what you’ve read so far, I have an important question for you: Which is more exhausting: Implementing discipline – or – giving into bad habits?
In my opinion, there are two answers:
- Implementing Discipline is exhausting for the first 20% of the time but less exhausting and more rewarding for the remaining 80% of the time.
- Giving into Bad Habits is rewarding for the first 20% of the time, but a lack of discipline and good habits make the necessities of a good life (i.e. Exercise, diet, work ethic, money management, love life, etc.) feel difficult for the remaining 80% of the time.
Implementing discipline feels painful on the front-end because you’re denying yourself immediate pleasure and rewards. This requires willpower, brainpower, and an overriding of what Art Markman calls “the Go-System” of the brain designed to take the path of least resistance and automation – for better or worse.
We all know that delaying gratification is a good practice, but we also are aware of the never-ending fight against dopamine bursts provided by television, social media, sugar, sex, prosperity preachers, etc. There is a tipping point, however, when our investments of discipline and long-term planning starts to pay off. This is typically when we begin to start reaping rewards like:
- Investing in mutual funds instead of shopping = Earning compound growth and financial freedom
- Working out and dieting instead of staying home and snacking = More confidence, feeling better, and attracting new partners (Or the same partner ;))
- Spending more time on a project at work instead of doing the minimum to earn a paycheck = Promotions, raises, and career options
While we all know that these things make sense, we may not have been consciously aware of why. As we have read in this article, it turns out that there is a strong physiological correlation and benefit to establishing good habits and relieving stress from the brain.
Let’s bring it home.
Lean Into Your Difficulties
“It is a profoundly erroneous truism that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”
– Alfred North Whitehead
“An introduction to Mathematics”
At the beginning of this article, I left you in suspense with the hero of our story in a finger-locked conundrum. If you didn’t know already, and you didn’t Google the answer, you’ll be happy to learn that you, our Protagonist, in the midst of your terror, found it within yourself to try an opposing solution to the one you had been attempting:
As you pulled and pulled apart, the trap became tighter and tighter. In a moment of clarity, you pushed your fingers together and watched the walls of the trap expand outward and loosen until you were able to remove your fingers. You looked up, saw a small pathway on the side of the staircase where you could climb up and use the railing with your now freed hands to go find the restroom and eventually your parents, with whom you could share your story of genius and triumph.
It was not until took the time to stop and notice the design of the Finger Trap, how it was sewed and wrapped, the direction of the fibers, etc. that you could realize that your first reaction was insufficient. Once you took the time, thought it through, and worked with the design, you were able to set yourself free.
Good for you, youngling.
There is a universal truth to be learned by this. Like the Chinese Finger Trap, our brains work a certain way, and if we learned to lean into its natural design rather than resisting and pulling away, we can be freed of the traps that lie within – i.e. Bad Habits or the resistance of Good Habits.
In fact, you could make the argument that there is nothing more natural and human than to absorb a difficult but worthy task in life, master it, and store it into the very fibers of who we are and what we do…automatically, without thought.
While giving into our basic urges without pushing back can indeed be less taxing on the brain from a short-term physiological perspective, it’s a losing strategy in the long-run because the brain is subject to atrophy and decay if it is not actively strengthened. As a result, that weakening of the brain then makes the every-day challenges of life even more strenuous.
Remember, the brain automates our thoughts and actions in every moment of every day whether we like it or not – so I will leave you with this question:
- Which thoughts and actions are you turning into habit?