The Monster Within Us

“I think you could have a lot of fun talking about scary things,” wrote my A List Apart editor, asking if I’d be up for publishing a Halloween-themed column today. Admittedly, she is right about my penchant for uncomfortable things. This may be why I don’t get invited to very many parties.

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I recently learned that the phrase “trick or treat” is short for “Give me a treat or I will play a trick on you.” It’s actually a threat. It also happens to be a frighteningly good metaphor for how our brains work. “Give me short-term gratification, or I will make your life miserable!” is the brain’s modus operandi as it communicates with itself to help us live our lives.

This is because there is a monster within us, and it’s called the amygdala1.

It’s no accident that I referred to the amygdala in my first and second pieces. It’s because I believe that even a high-level understanding of this curious part of our brains can dramatically improve each of our lives.

The amygdala, one of the earliest to evolve parts of the brain, is responsible for the fight or flight instinct: that reflexive, subconscious reaction that protects us in moments of dire danger. The amygdala’s top functional focus is to keep us alive at all costs. And to that end, it has evolved to save our lives by making split-second decisions with not only very little data at hand, but without the participation of a conscious mind.

If the amygdala were to get a tattoo across its chest, it’d be Notorious B.I.G.’s “Squeeze first ask questions last,” in Gothic Olde English. (Biggie is referring to squeezing the trigger, of course.) And for good reason. In the amygdala’s world, the only thing between life and sudden death is a few measly milliseconds.

But in our #firstworldproblems, we rarely encounter life-or-death situations. And as a result, there’s a diminished need for the amygdala’s role as bodyguard. Instead of being on the lookout for predators or incoming spears from rivals, the amygdala spends all its time on relatively more trivial matters. Like protecting our delicate egos.

But evolution doesn’t happen overnight. And you can definitely see the amygdala’s propensity for fight or flight in these examples, if you squint just right:

  • The need to put down someone’s taste in music because they confess they like Celine Dion
  • The urge to chase down someone who cuts us off on the freeway
  • The propensity to fire off a hasty and nasty response to an email perceived as rude

Maybe these examples will hit closer to home?

  • The anger directed at an “uneducated” colleague who just gave us negative feedback on a design concept
  • The instantaneous feeling of disdain toward a company that we loved, just after they announce they’re going to start making revenue from advertising
  • The urge to send a snarky tweet (or worse, to write a rude blog post) when the CEO of a Fortune 500 company redesigns its logo over the weekend

There’s a good chance that at least one of these examples made your pulse speed up and your face warm for a split second.

Mine is Celine Dion. That lady doesn’t make my heart go on—her name almost induces cardiac arrest. It’s not because I’m “being emotional.” No, really: her music is objectively bad, she has no talent, she doesn’t write her own songs, she is a narcissist, blah blah blah. And thus, blah-dee-blah-blah. And therefore, Celine Dion sucks; her supporters are perpetuating the demise of the music industry; and I am doing the world a favor by telling them so.

We are phenomenal at dressing our monster-driven opinions as fact, thanks to our ability to confabulate.

But in reality, we’re simply characters in an issue of Modern Jackass (as Ira Glass illustrated in an aptly titled episode of This American Life, A Little Bit of Knowledge): people taking a tiny smidgen of understanding and stretching it far past the breaking point. This applies even to the brightest among us.

Under a critical lens, each of the above examples possesses one and only one objective truth, and they all have it in common: they’re defensive in nature. And when you take away the thin veils of our shaky rationalizations that we’re defending everything from beauty and freedom to capitalism and craft, they reveal what we’re truly defending: ourselves. That is, our own, biased view of the world.

Even if we ignore the price that we pay in the form of lost civility, professional immaturity, and a slew of other things, we are still left with a hefty cost: our own flow, i.e. our happiness.

This becomes clear as day in our always-connected social media lives, where every second we’re awake, unchecked amygdalae can, and often do, hijack our bodies. When you start counting the number of times you lose control of the consciousness that is a non-negotiable prerequisite for flow, the cost revealed is unaffordable both in the short and long run. “I don’t like what anger and fear—mine and others’—do to my brain and my body, so I filter like crazy,” writes Erin Kissane on The Pastry Box before proposing some great pragmatic solutions to help you preserve your flow without disconnecting yourself from the internet. If I’d read that in 2010, it may have prevented my Twitter breakup and year-long hiatus from social media.

The manifestation of our monsters on the web is but an amplification of their already thriving existence. The internet simply helps wipe the condensation off the mirror, so to speak. And this becomes hilariously (or tragically?) obvious in this Jimmy Kimmel Live! segment where celebrities read out nasty tweets directed at them. The fact is, we had road rage long before we jumped on the information superhighway.

So the question is, how do we fix the real, analog problem?

As with most problems, the solution seems to lie in nipping the offending behavior in the the bud: by catching a defense mechanism before it can mutate into committed jackassery. And our weapon of choice is introspection—using our mind to monitor our brain.

Among the many strategies you can find online and in books, my favorite technique is known as affect labeling, an elegant aikido-like maneuver that uses the brain’s weakness to gain the advantage. It involves labeling what you’re feeling in moments of conflict. For instance, if someone does something that upsets you, you identify exactly how you are upset by saying to yourself, “I feel disappointed. Walt’s behavior really disappointed me.” This labeling of your feelings trades off a potentially monstrous reaction for conscious thought, effectively reducing the load on the amygdala, and allowing your higher brain to work through the problem.

A variation that my wife and I use to great effect (we’re the elusive business-partner pair that’s happily married) is to simply vocalize that a monster may be at work. Sometimes when emotions get heated as we collaborate on designing something or find ourselves in an over-analytical discussion about why we ran out of milk that morning, one of us will stop the other dead in their tracks and say, “I think you’re having an amygdala hijack.” Or in rare moments of victory, “I think I’m having an amygdala hijack.”

But before we get carried away with best practices and extemporaneous problem-solving, it’s worth pausing to remind ourselves of that old adage, “The first step to solving a problem is recognizing that there is one.” Nothing is harder than recognizing a problem with ourselves. If you take away only one thing from this article, let it be the following: There is a monster within you (and me).

That’s all our minds need to remember the next time the monster in our brains comes around and asks us the inevitable.

“Trick or Treat?”

1 Reader Comments

  1. This was quite an absorbing read. I’ve been fascinated by our collective, routine cognitive failings for years now. Thanks for giving me a part of the brain – the amygdala – to blame.

    The damned thing seems quite good at its job. I sometimes have a hard time drawing anyone’s eyes to it precisely because: [i]well, [b]I[/b] would never do that.[/i]

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