How Our Minds Work: Conditioning
We all know how Pavlov was able to train dogs to drool without even seeing or smelling food. (check it out on Wikipedia for a refresher, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Pavlov). He’d ring a bell just before giving them food; after a time, just hearing the bell would set them drooling in anticipation of the food. That’s known as conditioning, by psychiatrist types.
What I hadn’t thought about was how deeply and widely all of us homo sapiens are conditioned by our parents, families, friends, the media, and society. Sure, I loved the 1962 movie, “The Manchurian Candidate.” But I never seriously thought of myself in the role of being so manipulated without my knowledge. The villain in the movie is Angela Lansbury, terrifying and in cahoots with the communists. She controls her brainwashed former POW son, played by Laurence Harvey, ordering him to assasinate an American presidential candidate. The now-iconic scenes of Russian and Chinese operatives brainwashing him to do whatever he is asked whenever he sees a certain playing card are surrealistic but compellingly sensible. Remembering them, the Frank Sinatra character in the movie wakes screaming in panic.
Unlike poor Laurence Harvey in the movie, our most crucial conditioning happens to us when we’re kids. It’s our well meaning parents who do the early indoctrination, long before we’re capable of understanding what’s happening to us. We learn what they consider good and bad behavior. At first, we act the way they want simply because we love and depend on them, we want to be like them. Their attention and love is like the food for Pavlov’s dogs; we crave it and learn to associate it with the bell of ”good” behavior. So “good” behavior makes us anticipate love, and “bad” behavior makes us anticipate disapproval or abandonment. ”Good” makes us feel warm and satisfied; “bad” makes us feel frightened and empty.
As we grow, our parents’ rewards and punishments branch out. Rewards could be food, play, freedoms: punishment could be removal of these things. Now we get used to acting automatically in order to receive the desired carrot or avoid the unwanted stick. But the specific reward or punishment is only part of the story; our longing for our parents’ love and fear of their disapproval stays burned into our minds.
Then we turn our attention outward to friends, school, and the media who provide compelling new sets of carrots and sticks. We end up acting based on all these rewards and punishments MOST OF THE TIME!
What’s missing in this picture? We don’t consider why we are doing what we are doing and if it makes any sense. We’re just reacting to the carrots and sticks. In many cases, this is OK; we don’t usually need to revisit whether to brush our teeth before bedtime. But in other, important cases, we are way off base. I eat lots of things because I want to feel satisfied (the carrot) or because I feel deprived and empty (the stick). Does it stop me if they aren’t actually tasty or nutritious and I’m not hungry? Depends on if I’m paying attention or not.
In this photo, Laurence Harvey is trying to resist instructions he’s conditioned to accept. In the movie, he can’t do it: even Frank Sinatra can’t deprogram him. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie; but…it doesn’t end well for Laurence Harvey.
Who’s your Angela Lansbury? One of mine is a tired or cranky state of mind. When I’m feeling unsatisfied like that, there’s a voice in my head saying, “is there anything sweet to eat in this house?” Next thing I know, I’m rooting through the cupboards looking for chocolate anything.
The good news is that since I wasn’t brainwashed by professional villains, I can derail my automatic thinking. If I remember to pay attention, and ask myself what I’m feeling, why I’m about to eat stale cookies, and whether it will satisfy me, I’ve got a shot at stopping myself. The hard part is to really, physically feel the niggling emptiness without acting to fix it. Is my stomach rumbling? Upset? Sinking? Butterflies? Is my mind racing? Am I in pain?
After practicing this during snack attacks, I found that I’m often physically feeling fear rather than hunger. I was shocked: what in heck do I have to be afraid of? Seems to me it must be that I’m afraid to feel the emptiness. But since the emptiness ain’t hunger, cookies aren’t going to fix it. And stale cookies, yuck!
The same principle applies when trying to derail all kinds of habits, whether they’re external actions or ways of thinking. Step #1 is to notice them starting up before you act them out. Step #2 is to feel what’s physically going on and identify it, tolerate it, stay with it, savor it, remember it.