"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do." - St. Paul
You really want to lose weight. You're at a party. There's a great big dripping slice of chocolate cake in front of you.
I want it. I won't have it. I will. I won't. Yes. No!
Two voices arguing in a single head. What's going on?
Neuroscientist David Eagleman shines a light on this peculiar and familiar aspect of human experience in his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. (Beams and Struts will be reporting from the Being Human 2012 Conference, where Eagleman will be a featured speaker. And it just so happens I'd read Incognito, as well as his work of fiction Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives. Both excellent reads, y'all.)
The grey matter in our skull doesn't work like an assembly line, with each worker specializing in a specific task. It's more of an inner parliament. "Brains are like representative democracies," Eagleman says. "They are built of multiple, overlapping experts who weigh in and compete over different choices. There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behaviour."
One political party craves the energy of the sugar and the social acceptance of eating cake with everyone else. The other party sees the consequences: guilt, self-recrimination, blocked arteries, a heart attack and cankles. The parties rage and debate over the course of an hour or a microsecond, and you either eat the cake or you don't.
"As Walt Whitman correctly surmised," Eagleman states, "we are large and we harbor multitudes within us. And those multitudes are locked in chronic battle."
We can name these disputing factions: the short term gain party and the long term good party. The devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. Ancient Jews, Eagleman says, called them the guf (the body) and the nefesh (soul). Germans say that someone trying to delay instant gratification has to overcome their innerer Schweinehund - their "inner pigdog."
Don't underestimate the power of your inner pigdog. He gets you to smoke that cigarette. It'll probably give you lungs full of tar, yellow teeth, stinky fingers and a permanently soft prick, but that's in the future. It'll relieve stress now. Give in to that impulse purchase you can't afford. Put it on your card. Treat yourself. Cheat on your partner. Run off and play in the labyrinth of the internet instead of doing the creative work you've always wanted to do. You'll feel better now. Sure you'll feel shitty later, but later only exists in the abstract. It's nothing compared to now.
There's another canine analogy for these inner struggles, which I first encountered in an issue of Daredevil. It's appeared many other places as well, including in addiction counselling:
"A native American elder said 'Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog, all of the time.' When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied 'The one I feed the most.'"
In terms of neuroscience, Eagleman reveals that a strong inner pigdog corresponds to an underdeveloped frontal lobe. This part of the brain takes longer to reach full growth than the others. It isn't fully formed until adulthood. That's why children are bad at impulse control. Even though we purport to believe that everyone is equal before the law, we apply lighter criminal sentencing for a person younger than eighteen - a somewhat arbitrary and inadequate age designation when weighed against the timetables of neuroscience. And even the initial premise of equal culpability amongst adults is flawed. Eagleman writes "This built-in myth of human equality suggests that all people are equally capable of decision making, impulse control, and comprehending consequence. While admirable, the notion is simply not true."
You know who has great big raging inner pigdogs? Addicts. Bad at controlling impulses. No thought to long term consequences. Give me what I want, now, now, now. Even if it means deceit, broken relationships, lost jobs, crime, destitution, prostitution, homelessness, HIV infection. That's a pigdog with rabies and fangs on your neck. What's going on with that?
Gabor Mate, MD explores this in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. He worked for ten years with addicts of all kinds in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside - the poorest, most drug addled neighbourhood in Canada.
He writes that addiction has everything to do with brain development, especially in early childhood. For our first three years, our brains develop at the same rate they did in the womb:
"There are times in the first year of life when, every second, multiple millions of nerve connections, or synapses, are established. …. In the early stages of life, the infant's brain has many more neurons and connections than necessary - billions of neurons in excess of what will eventually be required. This overgrown, chaotic synaptic tangle needs to be trimmed to shape the brain into an organ that can govern action, thought, learning and relationships and carry out its multiple and varied other tasks - and to coordinate them all in our best interests. Which connections survive depends largely on input from the environment. Connections and circuits used frequently are strengthened, while unused ones are pruned out: indeed scientists call this aspect of neural Darwinism synaptic pruning."
The life stories of Mate's patients are riddled with emotional, physical and sexual abuse, usually going back to earliest childhood. These repeated incidents of violation imprint directly on the brain and form behaviour patterns that play out through a person's life. Mate writes that mistreated children have been found to have brains seven or eight percent smaller than those of people who didn't suffer traumatic childhoods.
"Early trauma also has consequences for how human beings respond to stress all their lives," Mate says, "and stress has everything to do with addiction."
How so? Addiction - whether to cocaine, the internet, beer, television, crystal meth, sexual conquest, purchasing shoes, or earning greater and greater accolades in one's profession - is a means to relieve stress. The inner pigdog gets wired in early, and its jaws are strong. A prolonged addiction progressively reshapes and cripples the exact neural mechanisms that make choices. One's inner parliament becomes more and more populated with pigdogs. Big muscular ones that look that look like those bizarre steroid bulls. And guess which kinds of laws and statutes will be enacted by that governing body.
So what can we do?
David Eagleman describes a rehabilitative therapy being developed by Stephen LaConte and Pearl Chiu: a frontal lobe workout. They use real-time brain imaging to monitor which parts of a person's brain are active, and how active they are, as they try to resist a big gooey slice of chocolate cake.
"The activity in those networks is represented by a vertical bar on a computer screen. Your job is to make the bar go down. The bar acts as a thermometer for your craving: If your craving networks are revving high, the bar is high; if you're suppressing your craving, the bar is low. You stare at the bar and try to make it go down. Perhaps you have insight into what you're doing to resist the cake; perhaps it is inaccessible. In any case, you try out different mental avenues until the bar begins to slowly sink. When it goes down, it means you've successfully recruited frontal circuitry to squelch the activity in the networks involved in impulsive craving. The long term has won over the short. Still looking at pictures of chocolate cake, you practice making the bar go down over and over until you've strengthened those frontal circuits. By this method, you're able to visualize the activity in the parts of your brain that need modulation, and you can witness the effects of different mental approaches you might take."
Eagleman suggests this kind of therapy as an alternative to our current system of incarceration, which has proven a spectacular failure in terms of deterrence and rehabilitation. Don't stick criminals into an overcrowded hell hole where they'll need to be fiercer than ever to survive, and then eventually release them to the public. How is that supposed to make people better behaved? Let's help those who've shown they think dominantly about short term gain to pump up the parts of their brains that see into the distance.
"The goal is to give more control to the neural populations that care about long-term consequences. To inhibit impulsivity. To encourage reflection. If a citizen thinks about long-term consequences and still decides to move forward with an illegal act, then we'll deal with those consequences accordingly. This approach has ethical importance and libertarian appeal. Unlike a lobotomy which sometimes leaves the patient with only an infantile mentality, this approach opens an opportunity for a willing person to help himself. Instead of a government mandating a psychosurgery here a government can offer a helping hand to better self-reflection and socialization. This approach leaves the brain intact - no drugs or surgery - and leverages the natural mechanisms of brain plasticity to help the brain help itself. It's a tune-up rather than a product recall."
(So far there are no verifiable peer reviewed results that validate this as the therapy of the future and the future of therapy. But Eagleman says that even if this version doesn't work, it provides a new model, and offers an alternative to the belief that incarceration is the only way to deal with law-breakers.)
And how about the rest of us, struggling not to eat that chocolate cake, or to make that impulse buy, or engage in any kind of self-defeating behaviour - how do we feed our mean dog less?
Not by ignoring its barks and growls and the snaps of its jaws. Not by barking back. Not by chastising ourselves for having a mean dog in us in the first place. And not by chasing it away.
To deny one's pigdog strengthens it. But its power dissipates in the face of light, knowledge and understanding.
Gabor Mate says "Mindful awareness involves directing our attention not only to the mental content of our thoughts, but also to the emotions and mind-states that inform those thoughts. It is being aware of the processes of our mind even as we work through its materials. Mindful awareness is the key to unlocking the automatic patterns that fetter the addicted brain and mind."
This process is bound to be long, arduous and riddled with setbacks. Is it worth doing?
Well, imagine you found yourself a passenger in a car being driven by a froth-mouthed canine. Fighting it only tightened its grip on the wheel. But the prolonged, taxing and often frustrating process of inner observation, courageous self-exploration and compassionate inquiry allowed you to slowly switch places.
Would you do it?
And if you succeeded, where would you drive to, finding yourself actually in the driver's seat for the first time in your life?