Your Brain is Basically a Three-Year-Old (and what to do about it)

During a recent workshop in Atlanta, one of the participants came from out of town with her mom and young son. Grandma and grandson hung out in the hotel during the day, and the little boy delighted us all when he stopped by for mom time on the breaks. At one point I happened to have a battery-operated timer in my hand when he came in the room, and being a well-adjusted, curious-1309170open and extremely curious little guy, he of course wanted it, so I gave it to him to play with. Ah, the buttons and bells! He was enchanted and (you probably saw this coming), not at all interested in giving it back at the end of the break. Having had some experience in the mom arena myself, I knew better than to wrest it away by force. The last thing I wanted to do was make him cry! So I dug around in my purse for something else I didn’t need, which turned out to be a bright orange (clean) handkerchief. He was a bit dubious, but took this in exchange for his toy, tears were thus avoided, and the workshop went on.

I tell this story because it reminds me of something I often say to my clients: in some ways, your brain is basically a three-year-old. (Now just to be clear, I’m not saying that you are a three-year-old. You are a marvelous creature of insight and possibilities. It’s just that your brain, well, your brain can be difficult.) Here are a couple of ways in which our brains exhibit three-year-old behavior, and what you might want to do about it:

1) Telling your brain NO often creates resistance, especially if it is currently doing something where there is a reward. Just like a toddler who is experimenting with the boundaries of her own needs and desires, our brains want what they want when they want it. We’re highly primed and encoded to move towards pleasure and away from pain. Dopamine, one of the happy chemicals in our brain (it also has many other functions), helps motivate us to do what is rewarding. And the sharpness of pain helps to keep us safe. Interestingly, perhaps because social connections have been evolutionarily critical to survival, the pain of social rejection (being severely criticized, having one’s heart broken, feeling like an outsider) are processed in a part of the brain adjacent to the pain centers. Not being part of things can literally hurt (and astonishingly, pain relievers can even help).

What to do about it: As every good parent knows, it is most effective to reward good behavior whenever possible and keep punishments to a minimum. The same is true with your brain. I occasionally have clients ask me to “be really tough on them,” and my response is (usually) that they are probably doing just fine in that arena themselves. I’m not interested in yelling at my clients or making them feel bad (I don’t get paid enough and that sort of work probably requires a completely different wardrobe). Instead, I’m more interested in helping them find something to move toward. It’s less of an internal battle to give the brain a compelling alternative and thereby make a new neural pathway (see my many posts on neuroplasticity, including this one for more) than to constantly try to stop doing what we have done a million times before by now inserting punishment or pain.

And negative commands have a way of strengthening the emotional salience of things. Just like when we tell a toddler not to pull the cat’s tail and they immediately do it, saying “don’t” to ourselves reinforces the idea that “Hey, there is something important and perhaps interesting here!” Again, far better to give the child a fluffy toy so that they ignore the cat in favor of something else. And so, instead of “getting tough,” my strategy tends to be to look for the fun way. You hate exercise but want to get in shape? Well, what do you love to do? What would make it not feel like a burden? What would compel you? Imagine being as kind to yourself as you would to an adorable child, and asking, “sweetheart, what do you want to do?”

2) Your brain makes many decisions emotionally and then tries to defend them rationally after the fact. Ever ask a three-year-old “Why did you do that?” Hah! Unless you are just going for the pure entertainment value, this is a losing proposition. Why? Because they don’t know why they did it. They did it because they wanted to. Because it was there. Because, why not? They’ll usually make up something, but the deeper truth is probably more along the lines of “I was experimenting to see if you really meant what you said about not getting out of the bathtub (cutting my doll’s hair, throwing my peas, etc.),” or “You said not to so I thought something interesting might happen if I did it,” or “I don’t know, I just wanted to,” or “It feels good.”

The only difference here between some of our own decisions and those of a three-year-old is that we learn to make our explanations more plausible and rational. Here’s how I understand this — our brains need to conserve energy. The brain makes up about 2-3% of our body weight, but it uses 20-25% of the calories we consume. And as such an energy consumptive part of our body, it is always looking for ways to conserve. Thinking, analyzing, and making decisions all take a lot more energy than emotionally responding, activating existing belief systems, and operating by assumptions. Psychologists call this type 1 processing: automatic, intuitive processes that are not very strenuous. Type 2 thinking, on the other hand, is is slower and involves processing more data and cues from all around us, and activates more of the highest part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.

In addition, all the research points to the fact that we are much better at type 2 thinking when we are well-rested and well-fed (See this fascinating study on the leniency of Israeli judges as one example) and not overly stressed. Add physical needs or emotional stress to the works and your brain just doesn’t have enough juice to operate at its highest level. It’s also the case that some of us just never learned how to move to a higher level of analysis. The brain is like a muscle–if certain parts are not exercised, they won’t be strong. And if someone’s background and training did not include practice in analyzing data and examining many factors when making decisions, all that is available is type 1 processing.

And so, whether we are stressed, hungry, tired, or just never really learned how to think in a more complex way, our type 1 thinking takes over, we respond more automatically, and then, when asked why we did something or think that way, our strong interpretive center takes over and makes something up that sounds good in the moment. Whether it’s rational or not. (For more on this, just watch American politicians for a while — many of them are experts.)

What to do about it: I am actually a huge fan of intuitive knowing, trusting one’s gut, etc. The body has wisdom and our internal sense of what fits and what doesn’t definitely deserves to be cultivated. So I’m not talking about dismissing one’s intuition. Rather, this points to strengthening our muscles of type 2 processing so that we can expand our decision-making capacity. We will always be dual processors, running both our emotional response (type 1) and rational analysis (type 2). If all we have accessible is type one processing, the three-year old in us takes over. And it’s also true that if all we have is type 2, we do not link what is most important and resonant to our choices.

One way to develop type 2 thinking is to take a philosophy (especially logic) or science class. The rigors of this kind of analysis will help to develop your capacity to move your thinking to higher areas of the brain. As coaches, we can also push in this arena to help our clients strengthen their brains by helping them analyze decisions logically, and then linking this consciously to the emotional resonance of their more type 1 thinking (and vice versa).

3) The good news–we can grow too! As I watched the adorable little boy in Atlanta, I noticed something else. He was a scientist, and life was his laboratory. For example, he’d give someone a high five, and then watch intently for their reaction. Like all healthy and well-adjusted toddlers, he was deeply engaged in the process of ongoing learning, pretty much at every moment. Checking things out, seeing what happened, and internally making micro-adjustments. We call this development, and we tend to think of it as the realm of children. But our brains continue to wire and rewire all throughout our whole lives, and when we bring consciousness, intent and support to this process, we can even give ourselves as adults some of what might have been missing in our early years as well as continuing to learn new skills and explore expanded ways of being.

This is one of the most important and significant connections between coaching and neuroscience, the fact that we as coaches help our clients create lasting change by supporting their self-directed neuroplasticity. And yes, children’s brains are more of a blank slate, but ours have unlimited potential as well. In that way, being like a three-year-old a great thing!

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