Critter Brain - Impress the heck out of yourself

Get Your Critter Brain Out Of Your Own Way & Impress The Heck Out Of Yourself

Good or bad, your Critter Brain is the reason you are exactly where you are today. Here’s why you are stuck in a rut and what you can do to inspire a better future.

The stuff human beings are capable of doing is really incredible. I’m always amazed at the grit and determination people can show when they put their mind to something they are passionate about.

Less inspiring, but still pretty amazing, is the human ability to conjure up intricate belief systems that keep us from even considering the notion that new and really great things are possible for us if we just step outside our comfort zone or challenge the norms just a little. We see people who seem pretty normal online everyday doing awe inspiring things so you would think we would all realize that these things are possible and we would all be doing them. But we’re not. Most of us are still sitting around telling stories about how we could/would never try.

Historically, our instinctive fear of the unknown and our whole hearted resistance to consider anything new is what allowed our species to survive some pretty ugly times, so thats a great thing. Over time evolution brought great innovations, complex thought and decision processes, but our primal “Critter Brain” is still programmed with that “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response. And its trigger is still super sensitive to anything that challenges the way we’ve always done something or the stories we have chosen to believe about why we are the way we are.

critter brain is for surviving not thrivingThe Critter Brain’s function is to keep life going. So if we’ve been doing something one way for a while and we haven’t died yet, the Critter Brain says “Hey that works, we’re still alive, lets keep doing that.” It doesn’t care if better, more efficient or healthier ways of doing that same thing are available. All it knows, and all it cares about, is the old way is the safest bet because we know it doesn't kill us. It cares about surviving, not thriving.

We have another part of our brain I like to call The Enabler, powered in part by the Limbic system, whose job it is to add context to situations to help us understand and adapt to the panic stricken limitations Critter Brain has put in place for us. It can sometimes help Critter Brain loosen its grip enough to test the forbidden waters of ‘something new’ but more often than not it acts like an enabling Mother justifying the poor choices of her not-so ‘perfect child’.

The Enabler part of our brains tries to reason with Critter Brain but eventually gives in and supports it by providing justification for the Critter Brain’s hard and fast rules, creating completely unfounded stories (reasons, excuses, etc) that we tell ourselves about why trying something new is bad or impossible. Now the Enabler creates these stories in the heat of the moment, but it also has a great memory and will recall precedents from similar potential threats. So basically, our own brains have designed a monumental and incredibly efficient machine to create mental road blocks to keep us stuck in the same old place as always.

Here are 3 ways this plays out in our regular life.

Critter Brain vs. Dairy Free Yogurt

The Critter Brain trigger can be flipped into full panic mode during the simplest of moments like this…

Opportunity: Do you want to try this really yummy, super healthy, dairy free yogurt. It’s my favourite!

Critter Brain: Heck no. That’s not what we usually eat. It will definitely kill us. DO NOT PUT THAT IN YOUR MOUTH.

Enabler: But Opportunity eats it and she loves it. She also loves pasta with meatballs and that’s our favourite thing ever. So she must like the same things as we do. We might like this too?

Critter Brain: NO NO NO. End of discussion. Now tell her something to make her stop offering this killer substance to us.

Enabler: okay (now Enabler will go one of three ways here and it might go something like this)

    1. Fight “The Drama Queen”: I’m allergic to non dairy yogurt (when you’ve never ever tried and actually have no idea if you are allergic or not)
    2. Flight “The Escape Artist”: Excuse me I have to go to the restroom (stays in there long enough for Jillian to finish her yogurt and eliminate the threat)
    3. Freeze “The Pleaser”: Oh ya I totally will try that, (later… when you’re not around to see me throw it in the garbage) I’m just not hungry now.
Critter Brain vs. Making a Healthy Lifestyle Change

Critter Brain is even triggered to prevent changes that could possibly improve life too...

Opportunity: Hey you said you want to get healthy once and for all. Great! I have helped lots of people do exactly that and I am really excited to help you do it too! Let’s get started.

Critter Brain: Heck no. That’s not what we do, we have always done this other thing. Doing anything else will definitely kill us. DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS CRAZY OPPORTUNITY.

Enabler: But Opportunity can teach us how to be healthier and stronger and live better and longer. That’s totally your deal isn’t it?

Critter Brain: NO NO NO. We do this. If we change what we do and how we do things EVERYTHING will change and we will end up somewhere we have never been before.

Enabler: Um that’s kind of the whole point. We feel like crap and have no energy and the doctor said if we don’t change something our health will get so much worse and we could end up in big trouble and we would need surgery to fix it.

Critter Brain: EXACTLY! We know the outcome of our current actions, and known outcomes are good. We don’t know for sure what the outcome of doing things differently will be. We don’t know if we can even do what opportunity is telling us to do. We got way too close to doing something differently with that gym membership thing and thankfully I talked us out of going more than that first time. End of discussion. This is what we do, it’s what we’ve always done. People like us this way. We know what we’re doing this way. Now tell her something to make her stop offering this new health stuff to us.

Enabler: okay (now Enabler will go one of three ways here and it might go something like this)

    1. Fight “The ‘Me Do It’ Toddler”: Look, I just don’t think any of these new strategies are going to work for me (even though I have done very little research on the topic and have no health or wellness training). I’m going to keep doing things my way and hope for different results.
    2. Flight “The Human Shielder”: I have to talk it over with my spouse, (I don’t want to admit out loud that I’m afraid of failing so I’m going to make my spouse the bad cop) I’ll call you back (but really I won’t). Side note on this one… If you have used your spouse as a human shield before, and statistically I know you have, is it actually possible that your spouse is going to say “Gee Honey I would rather you not be healthy, or feel energetic, strong, vibrant, confident or sexy… I much prefer the sick, tired and unmotivated version of you, whose libido has been MIA for the past five years.”…I didn’t think so.
    3. Freeze “The ‘It’s not me it’s life’ Blamer”: I would be all over this but I just don’t have the time, it’s too expensive, I’m too tired… (Really I’m just not willing to change how I currently spend my time or money to make room for improving my health)

 

Critter Brain vs. A Life Threatening Flood

And when it comes to actual life threatening situations you would think this is where the Critter Brain shines through… Nope, it still can’t rise to the occasion

Opportunity: The river is flooding and it will likely wash away your house, you still have time to evacuate with some of your belongings and find safety at higher ground.

Critter Brain: Heck no. I don’t know what it’s going to be like at higher ground. We have never been to higher ground before. Higher ground will definitely kill us. DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS CRAZY OPPORTUNITY.

Enabler: But if we stay with the house we will definitely die. Aren’t you supposed to protect us from that?

Critter Brain: NO NO NO. We do don’t go to Higher Ground. If we go EVERYTHING will be different and we won’t have all our stuff, and we won’t know where anything is, and we will end up somewhere we have never been before.

Enabler: Ya but we will be ALIVE!!!

Critter Brain: EXACTLY! Alive and vulnerable and scared and lost. We know the outcome of our current actions and that’s good. We don’t know anything about Higher Ground. End of discussion. Now tell opportunity something to make her stop offering us this Higher Ground option.

Enabler: okay (now Enabler will go one of three ways here and it might go something like this)

    1. Fight “The Conspiracy Theorist”: I’m not leaving my house. I don’t trust anybody so I’m going to make sure nobody breaks in and steals all my stuff. (because when i am washed away by the river I'm really going to need all my stuff)
    2. Flight “The Ostrich”: It’s really not that big of storm, the river is not going to wash away my house. Maybe it will get a little wet or the basement will flood but that’s all. I’ll stay and make sure the pump works.
    3. Freeze “The Ya But’er”: Ya but I can’t leave my cat. Ya but I can’t bring my cat. Ya but the traffic is bad. Ya but my friends are all staying.

Breaking through this Critter Brain wall of fear would be a Herculean task, but thankfully there is a 3rd part of our brains, the Cortex. The Cortex is a dreamer and an impulsive risk taker. He spends all day looking for ways to improve, create, and discover. The Cortex brought us fire, the wheel, exploration, and every other innovation you can think of… including fraud, theft, and any other opportunistic activity.

Ever wonder why some people seem to have a new amazing idea every 10 minutes and others could spend a lifetime trying to come up with just one? Well those people have a louder “Cortex” than the rest of us. Their Cortex can easily drown out the Critter Brain letting Enabler justify her heart out to prove why Cortex’s idea is an amazing one.

You see, Enabler simply picks the loudest voice and builds the supporting story around it. So if you want to be more adventurous just turn up Cortex’s volume. If you want to stop chasing down every cool sounding idea and just focus on one thing for a while, you may want to turn down Cortex’s volume a bit.

Think back to the last 3 opportunities that were presented to you. Was Enabler representing the Critter Brain or the Cortex? No need to judge yourself or others on this one, just take notice of which instinct is leading your day to day decision making process.

Critter Brain

“I’ll have the exact same latte order as yesterday and every day for the past 3 years, please.”

“Plan for the future? Ha, I’m just trying to get through today.”

“I haven’t changed a bit, I’m the same guy I’ve always been.”

The Cortex

“ooh, look there’s a new Cocoa Mocha Polka latte, I’ll have that”

“I made a long list of all the things I want to do this year and I’ve already started 5 of them”

“I love my super diverse resume. Look at how many different jobs I’ve had since graduating University 5 years ago.”

The point here is not to make fun of one, or judge the other, it’s simply to acknowledge and accept where you are on the spectrum so you can work toward finding a productive balance.

Acknowledge your instincts and be super honest about them. Let Enabler tell your real truth and work with her to gracefully find a balance and create a secure place from which you can grow, be inspired, impress the heck out of yourself, and rewrite your own empowering stories.

Try new things and thrive

As always, the information in this blog is my translation of the information I have gathered over years of study. It's my attempt at making the core concepts of complex issues a little easier to understand and relate to. Here is a different perspective on the same information if you're interested. 

You may also be interested in the blog I wrote about Functional Medicine. Sometimes innovation is found in going backwards to the way we used to do things.

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