It all started with a headache.¹
“Elliot” was a successful man, an executive at a successful company. He was well liked by his coworkers and neighbors. He could be charming and disarmingly funny. He was a husband and a father and a friend and took sweet-ass beach vacations.
Except he had headaches, regularly. And these weren’t your typical, pop-an-Advil kind of headaches. These were mind-crunching, corkscrewing headaches, like a wrecking ball banging against the back of your eye sockets.
Elliot took medicine. He took naps. He tried to de-stress and chill out and hang loose and brush it off and suck it up. Yet, the headaches continued. In fact, they only got worse. Soon, they became so severe that Elliot couldn’t sleep at night or work during the day.
Finally, he went to a doctor. The doctor did doctor things and ran doctor tests and received the doctor results and told Elliot the bad news: he had a brain tumor, right there on his frontal lobe. Right there. See it? That gray blotch, in the front. And man, is it a big one. Size of a baseball, I reckon.
The surgeon cut the tumor out, and Elliot went home. He went back to work. He went back to his family and friends. Everything seemed fine and normal.
Then things went horribly wrong.
Elliot’s work performance suffered. Tasks that were once a breeze to him now required mountains of concentration and effort. Simple decisions, such as whether to use a blue pen or a black pen, would consume him for hours. He would make basic errors and leave them unfixed for weeks. He became a scheduling black hole, missing meetings and deadlines as if they were an insult to the fabric of space/time itself.
At first, his coworkers felt bad and covered for him. After all, the guy had just had a tumor the size of a small fruit basket cut out of his head. But then the covering became too much for them, and Elliot’s excuses too unreasonable. You skipped an investor’s meeting to buy a new stapler, Elliot? Really? What were you thinking?²
After months of the botched meetings and the bullshit, the truth was undeniable: Elliot had lost something more than a tumor in the surgery, and as far as his colleagues were concerned, that something was a shitload of company money. So, Elliot was fired.
Meanwhile, his home life wasn’t faring much better. Imagine if you took a deadbeat dad, stuffed him inside a couch potato, lightly glazed it with Family Feud reruns, and baked it at 350°F for twenty-four hours a day. That was Elliot’s new life. He missed his son’s Little League games. He skipped a parent-teacher conference to watch a James Bond marathon on TV. He forgot that his wife generally preferred it if he spoke to her more than once a week.
Fights erupted in Elliot’s marriage along new and unexpected fault lines—except, they couldn’t really be considered fights. Fights require that two people give a shit. And while his wife breathed fire, Elliot had trouble following the plot. Instead of acting with urgency to change or to patch things up, to show that he loved and cared for these people who were his own, he remained isolated and indifferent. It was as though he were living in another area code, one never quite reachable from anywhere on earth.
Eventually, his wife couldn’t take it anymore. Elliot had lost something else besides that tumor, she yelled. And that something was called his goddamn heart. She divorced him and took the kids. And Elliot was alone.
Dejected and confused, Elliot began looking for ways to restart his career. He got sucked into some bad business ventures. A scam artist conned him out of much of his savings. A predatory woman seduced him, convinced him to elope, and then divorced him a year later, making off with half his assets. He loafed around town, settling in increasingly cheaper and shittier apartments until, after a few years, he was effectively homeless. His brother took him in and began supporting him. Friends and family looked on aghast while, over a few short years, a man they had once admired essentially threw his life away. No one could make sense of it. It was undeniable that something in Elliot had changed; that those debilitating headaches had caused more than pain.
The question was, what had changed?
Elliot’s brother chaperoned him from one doctor’s visit to the next. “He’s not himself,” the brother would say. “He has a problem. He seems fine, but he’s not. I promise.”
The doctors did their doctor things and received their doctor results, and unfortunately, they said that Elliot was perfectly normal—or, at least, he fit their definition of normal; above average, even. His CAT scans looked fine. His IQ was still high. His reasoning was solid. His memory was great. He could discuss, at length, the repercussions and consequences of his poor choices. He could converse on a wide range of subjects with humor and charm. His psychiatrist said Elliot wasn’t depressed. On the contrary, he had high self-esteem, and no signs of chronic anxiety or stress—he exhibited almost Zen-like calm in the eye of a hurricane caused by his own negligence.
His brother couldn’t accept this. Something was wrong. Something was missing in him.
Finally, in desperation, Elliot was referred to a famous neuroscientist named Antonio Damasio.
Initially, Antonio Damasio did the same things the other doctors had done: he gave Elliot a bunch of cognitive tests. Memory, reflexes, intelligence, personality, spatial relations, moral reasoning—everything checked out. Elliot passed with flying colors.
Then, Damasio did something to Elliot no other doctor had thought to do: he talked to him—like, really talked to him. He wanted to know everything: every mistake, every error, every regret. How had he lost his job, his family, his house, his savings? Take me through each decision, explain the thought process (or, in this case, the lack of a thought process).
Elliot could explain, at length, what decisions he’d made, but he couldn’t explain the why of those decisions. He could recount facts and sequences of events with perfect fluidity and even a certain dramatic flair, but when asked to analyze his decision making—why did he decide that buying a new stapler was more important than meeting with an investor, why did he decide that James Bond was more interesting than his kids?—he was at a loss. He had no answers. And not only that, he wasn’t even upset about having no answers. In fact, he didn’t care.
This was a man who had lost everything due to his own poor choices and mistakes, who had exhibited no self-control whatsoever, and who was completely aware of the disaster his life had become, and yet he apparently showed no remorse, no self-loathing, not even a little bit of embarrassment. Many people have been driven to suicide for less than what Elliot had endured. Yet there he was, not only comfortable with his own misfortune but indifferent to it.
That’s when Damasio had a brilliant realization: the psychological tests Elliot had undergone were designed to measure his ability to think, but none of the tests was designed to measure his ability to feel. Every doctor had been so concerned about Elliot’s reasoning abilities that no one had stopped to consider that it was Elliot’s capacity for emotion that had been damaged. And even if they had realized it, there was no standardized way of measuring that damage.
One day, one of Damasio’s colleagues printed up a bunch of grotesque and disturbing pictures. There were burn victims, gruesome murder scenes, war-torn cities, and starving children. He then showed Elliot the photos, one by one.
Elliot was completely indifferent. He felt nothing. And the fact that he didn’t care was so shocking that even he had to comment on how fucked up it was. He admitted that he knew for sure that these images would have disturbed him in the past, that his heart would have welled up with empathy and horror, that he would have turned away in disgust. But now? As he sat there, staring at the darkest corruptions of the human experience, Elliot felt nothing.
And this, Damasio discovered, was the problem: while Elliot’s knowledge and reasoning were left intact, the tumor and/or the surgery to remove it had debilitated his ability to empathize and feel. His inner world no longer possessed lightness and darkness but was instead an endless gray miasma. Attending his daughter’s piano recital evoked in him all the vibrancy and joyful fatherly pride of buying a new pair of socks. Losing a million dollars felt exactly the same to him as pumping gas, laundering his sheets, or watching Family Feud. He had become a walking, talking indifference machine. And without that ability to make value judgments, to determine better from worse, no matter how intelligent he was, Elliot had lost his self-control.³
But this raised a huge question: if Elliot’s cognitive abilities (his intelligence, his memory, his attention) were all in perfect shape, why couldn’t he make effective decisions anymore?
This stumped Damasio and his colleagues. We’ve all wished at times that we couldn’t feel emotion, because our emotions often drive us to do stupid shit we later regret. For centuries, psychologists and philosophers assumed that dampening or suppressing our emotions was the solution to all life’s problems. Yet, here was a man stripped of his emotions and empathy entirely, someone who had nothing but his intelligence and reasoning, and his life had quickly degenerated into a total clusterfuck. His case went against all the common wisdom about rational decision making and self-control.
But there was a second, equally perplexing question: If Elliot was still as smart as a whip and could reason his way through problems presented to him, why did his work performance fall off a cliff? Why did his productivity morph into a raging dumpster fire? Why did he essentially abandon his family knowing full well the negative consequences? Even if you don’t give a shit about your wife or your job anymore, you should be able to reason that it’s still important to maintain them, right? I mean, that’s what sociopaths eventually figure out. So, why couldn’t Elliot? Really, how hard is it to show up to a Little League game every once in a while? Somehow, by losing his ability to feel, Elliot had also lost his ability to make decisions. He’d lost the ability to control his own life.
We’ve all had the experience of knowing what we should do yet failing to do it. We’ve all put off important tasks, ignored people we care about, and failed to act in our own self-interest. And usually when we fail to do the things we should, we assume it’s because we can’t sufficiently control our emotions. We’re too undisciplined or we lack knowledge.
Yet Elliot’s case called all this into question. It called into question the very idea of self-control, the idea that we can logically force ourselves to do things that are good for us despite our impulses and emotions.
To generate hope in our lives, we must first feel as though we have control over our lives. We must feel as though we’re following through on what we know is good and right; that we’re chasing after “something better.” Yet many of us struggle with the inability to control ourselves. Elliot’s case would be one of the breakthroughs to understanding why this occurs. This man, poor, isolated and alone; this man staring at photos of broken bodies and earthquake rubble that could easily have been metaphors for his life; this man who had lost everything, absolutely everything, and still cracked a smile to tell about it—this man would be the key to revolutionizing our understanding of the human mind, how we make decisions, and how much self-control we actually have.
The Classic Assumption
Once, when asked about his drinking, the musician Tom Waits famously muttered, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” He appeared to be hammered when he said it. Oh, and he was on national television.⁴
The frontal lobotomy is a form of brain surgery wherein a hole is drilled into your skull through your nose and then the frontal lobe is gently sliced with an icepick.⁵ The procedure was invented in 1935 by a neurologist named António Egas Moniz.⁶ Egas Moniz discovered that if you took people with extreme anxiety, suicidal depression, or other mental health issues (aka crises of hope) and maimed their brain in just the right way, they’d chill the fuck out.
Egas Moniz believed that the lobotomy, once perfected, could cure all mental illness, and he marketed it to the world as such. By end of the 1940s, the procedure was a hit, being performed on tens of thousands of patients all over the world. Egas Moniz would even win a Nobel Prize for his discovery.
But by the 1950s, people began to notice that—and this might sound crazy—drilling a hole through somebody’s face and scraping their brain the same way you clean ice off your windshield can produce a few negative side effects. And by “a few negative side effects,” I mean the patients became goddamn potatoes. While often “curing” patients of their extreme emotional afflictions, the procedure also left them with an inability to focus, make decisions, have careers, make long-term plans, or think abstractly about themselves. Essentially, they became mindlessly satisfied zombies. They became Elliots.
The Soviet Union, of all places, was the first country to outlaw the lobotomy. The Soviets declared the procedure “contrary to human principles” and claimed that it “turned an insane person into an idiot.”⁷ This was sort of a wake-up call to the rest of the world, because let’s face it, when Joseph Stalin is lecturing you about ethics and human decency, you know you’ve fucked up.
After that, the rest of the world began, slowly, to ban the practice, and by the 1960s, pretty much everyone hated it. The last lobotomy would be performed in the United States in 1967, and the patient would die. Ten years later, a drunken Tom Waits muttered his famous line on television, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Tom Waits was a blistering alcoholic who spent most of the 1970s trying to keep his eyes open and remember where he last left his cigarettes.⁸ He also found time to write and record seven brilliant albums in this period. He was both prolific and profound, winning awards and selling millions of records that were celebrated worldwide. He was one of those rare artists whose insight into the human condition could be startling.
Waits’s quip about the lobotomy makes us laugh, but there’s a hidden wisdom to it: that he’d rather have the problem of passion with the bottle than have no passion at all; that it’s better to find hope in lowly places than to find none; that without our unruly impulses, we are nothing.
There’s pretty much always been a tacit assumption that our emotions cause all our problems, and that our reason must swoop in to clean up the mess. This line of thinking goes all the way back to Socrates, who declared reason the root of all virtue.⁹ At the beginning of the Enlightenment, Descartes argued that our reason was separate from our animalistic desires and that it had to learn to control those desires.¹⁰ Kant sort of said the same thing.¹¹ Freud, too, except there were a lot of penises involved.¹² And when Egas Moniz lobotomized his first patient in 1935, I’m sure he thought he had just discovered a way to do what, for more than two thousand years, philosophers had declared needed to be done: to grant reason dominion over the unruly passions, to help humanity finally exercise some damn control over itself.
This assumption (that we must use our rational mind to dominate our emotions) has trickled down through the centuries and continues to define much of our culture today. Let’s call it the “Classic Assumption.” The Classic Assumption says that if a person is undisciplined, unruly, or malicious, it’s because he lacks the ability to subjugate his feelings, that he is weak-willed or just plain fucked up. The Classic Assumption sees passion and emotion as flaws, errors within the human psyche that must be overcome and fixed within the self.
Today, we usually judge people based on the Classic Assumption. Obese people are ridiculed and shamed because their obesity is seen as a failure of self-control. They know they should be thin, yet they continue to eat. Why? Something must be wrong with them, we assume. Smokers: same deal. Drug addicts receive the same treatment, of course, but often with the extra stigma of being defined as criminals.
Depressed and suicidal people are subjected to the Classic Assumption in a way that’s dangerous, being told that their inability to create hope and meaning in their lives is their own damn fault, that maybe, if they just tried a little harder, hanging themselves by the necktie wouldn’t sound so appealing.
We see succumbing to our emotional impulses as a moral failing. We see a lack of self-control as a sign of a deficient character. Conversely, we celebrate people who beat their emotions into submission. We get collective hard-ons for athletes and businessmen and leaders who are ruthless and robotic in their efficiency. If a CEO sleeps under his desk and doesn’t see his kids for six weeks at a time—fuck yeah, that’s determination! See? Anyone can be successful!
Clearly, it’s not hard to see how the Classic Assumption can lead to some damaging . . . er, assumptions. If the Classic Assumption is true, then we should be able to exhibit self-control, prevent emotional outbursts and crimes of passion, and stave off addiction and indulgences through mental effort alone. And any failure to do so reflects something inherently faulty or damaged within us.
This is why we often develop the false belief that we need to change who we are. Because if we can’t achieve our goals, if we can’t lose the weight or get the promotion or learn the skill, then that signifies some internal deficiency. Therefore, in order to maintain hope, we decide we must change ourselves, become somebody totally new and different. This desire to change ourselves then refills us with hope. The “old me” couldn’t shake that terrible smoking habit, but the “new me” will. And we’re off to the races again.
The constant desire to change yourself then becomes its own sort of addiction: each cycle of “changing yourself” results in similar failures of self-control, therefore making you feel as though you need to “change yourself” all over again. Each cycle refuels you with the hope you’re looking for. Meanwhile, the Classic Assumption, the root of the problem, is never addressed or questioned, let alone thrown out.
Like a bad case of acne, a whole industry has sprouted up over the past couple of centuries around this “change yourself” idea. This industry is replete with false promises and clues to the secrets of happiness, success, and self-control. Yet all the industry does is reinforce the same impulses that drive people to feel inadequate in the first place.¹³
The truth is that the human mind is far more complex than any “secret.” And you can’t simply change yourself; nor, I would argue, should you always feel you must.
We cling to this narrative about self-control because the belief that we’re in complete control of ourselves is a major source of hope. We want to believe that changing ourselves is as simple as knowing what to change. We want to believe that the ability to do something is as simple as deciding to do it and mustering enough willpower to get there. We want to believe ourselves to be the masters of our own destiny, capable of anything we can dream.
This is what made Damasio’s discovery with “Elliot” such a big deal: it showed that the Classic Assumption is wrong. If the Classic Assumption were true, if life were as simple as learning to control one’s emotions and make decisions based on reason, then Elliot should have been an unstoppable badass, tirelessly industrious, and a ruthless decision maker. Similarly, if the Classic Assumption were true, lobotomies should be all the rage. We’d all be saving up for them as if they were boob jobs.
But lobotomies don’t work, and Elliot’s life was ruined.
The fact is that we require more than willpower to achieve self-control. It turns out that our emotions are instrumental in our decision making and our actions. We just don’t always realize it.
You Have Two Brains, and They’re Really Bad at Talking to Each Other
Let’s pretend your mind is a car. Let’s call it the “Consciousness Car.” Your Consciousness Car is driving along the road of life, and there are intersections, on-ramps, and off-ramps. These roads and intersections represent the decisions you must make as you drive, and they will determine your destination.
Now, there are two travelers in your Consciousness Car: a Thinking Brain and a Feeling Brain.¹⁴ The Thinking Brain represents your conscious thoughts, your ability to make calculations, and your ability to reason through various options and express ideas through language. Your Feeling Brain represents your emotions, impulses, intuition, and instincts. While your Thinking Brain is calculating payment schedules on your credit card statement, your Feeling Brain wants to sell everything and run away to Tahiti.
Each of your two brains has its strengths and weaknesses. The Thinking Brain is conscientious, accurate, and impartial. It is methodical and rational, but it is also slow. It requires a lot of effort and energy, and like a muscle, it must be built up over time and can become fatigued if overexerted.¹⁵ The Feeling Brain, however, arrives at its conclusions quickly and effortlessly. The problem is that it is often inaccurate and irrational. The Feeling Brain is also a bit of a drama queen and has a bad habit of overreacting.
When we think of ourselves and our decision making, we generally assume that the Thinking Brain is driving our Consciousness Car and the Feeling Brain is sitting in the passenger seat shouting out where it wants to go. We’re driving along, accomplishing our goals and figuring out how to get home, when that damn Feeling Brain sees something shiny or sexy or fun-looking and yanks the steering wheel in another direction, thus causing us to careen into oncoming traffic, harming other people’s Consciousness Cars as well as our own.
This is the Classic Assumption, the belief that our reason is ultimately in control of our life and that we must train our emotions to sit the fuck down and shut up while the adult is driving. We then applaud this kidnapping and abuse of our emotions by congratulating ourselves on our self-control.
But our Consciousness Car doesn’t work that way. When his tumor was removed, Elliot’s Feeling Brain got thrown out of his moving mental vehicle, and nothing got better for him. In fact, his Consciousness Car stalled out. Lobotomy patients had their Feeling Brains tied up and thrown in the car’s trunk, and that merely caused them to become sedated and lazy, unable to get out of bed or even dress themselves much of the time.
Meanwhile, Tom Waits was pretty much all Feeling Brain all the time, and he got paid copious amounts of money to be drunk on television talk shows. So, there’s that.
Here’s the truth: the Feeling Brain is driving our Consciousness Car. And I don’t care how scientific you think you are or how many letters you have after your name, you’re one of us, bucko. You’re a crazy Feeling Brain–piloted meat robot just like the rest of us. Keep your bodily fluids to yourself, please.
The Feeling Brain drives our Consciousness Car because, ultimately, we are moved to action only by emotion. That’s because action is emotion.¹⁶ Emotion is the biological hydraulic system that pushes our bodies into movement. Fear is not this magical thing your brain invents. No, it happens in our bodies. It’s the tightening of your stomach, the tensing of your muscles, the release of adrenaline, the overwhelming desire for space and emptiness around your body. While the Thinking Brain exists solely within the synaptic arrangements inside your skull, the Feeling Brain is the wisdom and stupidity of the entire body. Anger pushes your body to move. Anxiety pulls it into retreat. Joy lights up the facial muscles, while sadness attempts to shade your existence from view. Emotion inspires action, and action inspires emotion. The two are inseparable.
This leads to the simplest and most obvious answer to the timeless question, why don’t we do things we know we should do?
Because we don’t feel like it.
Every problem of self-control is not a problem of information or discipline or reason but, rather, of emotion. Self-control is an emotional problem; laziness is an emotional problem; procrastination is an emotional problem; underachievement is an emotional problem; impulsiveness is an emotional problem.
This sucks. Because emotional problems are much harder to deal with than logical ones. There are equations to help you calculate the monthly payments on your car loan. There are no equations to help you end a bad relationship.
And as you’ve probably figured out by now, intellectually understanding how to change your behavior doesn’t change your behavior. (Trust me, I’ve read like twelve books on nutrition and am still chomping on a burrito as I write this.) We know we should stop smoking cigarettes or stop eating sugar or stop talking shit about our friends behind their backs, but we still do it. And it’s not because we don’t know better; it’s because we don’t feel better.
Emotional problems are irrational, meaning they cannot be reasoned with. And this brings us to even worse news: emotional problems can only have emotional solutions. It’s all up to the Feeling Brain. And if you’ve seen how most people’s Feeling Brains drive, that’s pretty fucking scary.
Meanwhile, while all this is going on, the Thinking Brain is sitting in the passenger seat imagining itself to be totally in control of the situation. If the Feeling Brain is our driver, then the Thinking Brain is the navigator. It has stacks of maps to reality that it has drawn and accumulated throughout life. It knows how to double back and find alternate routes to the same destination. It knows where the bad turns are and where to find the shortcuts. It correctly sees itself as the intelligent, rational brain, and it believes that this somehow privileges it to be in control of the Consciousness Car. But, alas, it doesn’t. As Daniel Kahneman once put it, the Thinking Brain is “the supporting character who imagines herself to be the hero.”¹⁷
Even if sometimes they can’t stand each other, our two brains need each other. The Feeling Brain generates the emotions that cause us to move into action, and the Thinking Brain suggests where to direct that action. The keyword here is suggests. While the Thinking Brain is not able to control the Feeling Brain, it is able to influence it, sometimes to a great degree. The Thinking Brain can convince the Feeling Brain to pursue a new road to a better future, to pull a U-turn when it has made a mistake, or to consider new routes or territories once ignored. But the Feeling Brain is stubborn, and if it wants to go in one direction, it will drive that way no matter how many facts or data the Thinking Brain provides. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares the two brains to an elephant and its rider: the rider can gently steer and pull the elephant in a particular direction, but ultimately the elephant is going to go where it wants to go.¹⁸
The Clown Car
The Feeling Brain, as great as it is, has its dark side. In the Consciousness Car, your Feeling Brain is like a verbally abusive boyfriend who refuses to pull over and ask for directions—he hates being told where to go and he will absolutely make you fucking miserable if you question his driving.
In order to avoid these psychological kerfuffles, and to maintain a sense of hope, the Thinking Brain develops a tendency to draw maps explaining or justifying where the Feeling Brain has already decided it wants to go. If the Feeling Brain wants ice cream, instead of contradicting it with facts about processed sugar and excess calories, your Thinking Brain decides, “You know what, I worked hard today. I deserve some ice cream,” and your Feeling Brain responds with a sense of ease and satisfaction. If your Feeling Brain decides that your partner is an asshole and you’ve done nothing wrong, your Thinking Brain’s immediate reaction will be to recall instances when you, in fact, were a beacon of patience and humility while your partner was secretly conspiring to ruin your life.
In this way, the two brains develop a really unhealthy relationship that might resemble your mom and dad on road trips when you were a kid. The Thinking Brain makes shit up that the Feeling Brain wants to hear. And in return, the Feeling Brain promises not to careen off the side of the road, killing everyone.
It’s incredibly easy to let your Thinking Brain fall into the trap of merely drawing the maps the Feeling Brain wants to follow. This is called the “self-serving bias,” and it’s the basis for pretty much everything awful about humanity.
Usually, the self-serving bias simply makes you prejudiced and a little bit self-centered. You assume that what feels right is right. You make snap judgments about people, places, groups, and ideas, many of which are unfair or even a little bit bigoted.
But in its extreme form, the self-serving bias can become outright delusion, causing you to believe in a reality that is not there, smudging memories and exaggerating facts, all in the service of the Feeling Brain’s never-ending cravings. If the Thinking Brain is weak and/or uneducated, or if the Feeling Brain is riled up, the Thinking Brain will succumb to the Feeling Brain’s fiery whims and dangerous driving. It will lose the ability to think for itself or to contradict the Feeling Brain’s conclusions.
This effectively turns your Consciousness Car into a Clown Car, with big, springy red wheels and circus music playing over a loudspeaker wherever you go.¹⁹ Your Consciousness Car becomes a Clown Car when your Thinking Brain has completely capitulated to your Feeling Brain, when your life’s pursuits are determined purely by self-gratification, when truth warps into a cartoon of self-serving assumptions, when all beliefs and principles are lost in a sea of nihilism.
The Clown Car invariably drives toward addiction, narcissism, and compulsion. People whose minds are Clown Cars are easily manipulated by whatever person or group makes them feel good consistently—whether it is a religious leader, politician, self-help guru, or sinister internet forum. A Clown Car will gladly steamroll other Consciousness Cars (i.e., other people) with its big, red rubbery tires because its Thinking Brain will justify this by saying they deserved it—they were evil, inferior, or part of some made-up problem.
Some Clown Cars merely drive toward fun—they’re all about drinking and fucking and partying. Others drive toward power. These are the most dangerous Clown Cars, as their Thinking Brains set to work justifying their abuse and subjugation of others through intellectual-sounding theories about economics, politics, race, genetics, gender, biology, history, and so on. A Clown Car will sometimes pursue hate, too, because hate brings its own odd satisfaction and self-assurance. Such a mind is prone to self-righteous anger, as having an external target reassures it of its own moral superiority. Inevitably, it drives toward the destruction of others because it is only through the destruction and subjugation of the outer world that its endless inner impulses can be satisfied.
It’s hard to pull someone out of the Clown Car once they’re in it. In the Clown Car, the Thinking Brain has been bullied and abused by the Feeling Brain for so long that it develops a sort of Stockholm syndrome—it can’t imagine a life beyond pleasing and justifying the Feeling Brain. It can’t fathom contradicting the Feeling Brain or challenging it on where it’s going, and it resents you for suggesting that it should. With the Clown Car, there’s no independent thought and no ability to measure contradiction or switch beliefs or opinions. In a sense, the person with a Clown Car mind ceases to have an individual identity at all.
This is why cultish leaders always start by encouraging people to shut off their Thinking Brains as much as possible. Initially, this feels profound to people because the Thinking Brain is often correcting the Feeling Brain, showing it where it took a wrong turn. So, silencing the Thinking Brain will feel extremely good for a short period. And people are always mistaking what feels good for what is good.
The metaphorical Clown Car is what inspired ancient philosophers to warn against the overindulgence and worship of feelings.²⁰ It was the fear of the Clown Car that inspired the Greeks and Romans to teach of the virtues and, later, the Christian Church to push a message of abstinence and self-denial.²¹ Both classical philosophers and the Church had seen the destruction wrought by narcissistic and megalomaniacal men in power. And they all believed that the only way to manage the Feeling Brain was to deprive it, to give it as little oxygen as possible, thus preventing it from exploding and destroying the world around it. This thinking gave birth to the Classic Assumption: that the only way to be a good person is through dominance of the Thinking Brain over the Feeling Brain, the championing of reason over emotion, duty over desire.
For most of human history, people have been brutal, superstitious, and uneducated. People in the Middle Ages used to torture cats for sport and take their kids to watch the local burglar get his nuts chopped off in the town square.²² People were sadistic, impulsive fuckers. For most of history, the world has not been a pleasant place to live, and that was largely because everyone’s Feeling Brains were running amok.²³ The Classic Assumption was often the only thing that stood between civilization and total anarchy.
Then something happened in the last couple of hundred years. People built trains and cars and invented central heating and stuff. Economic prosperity outran human impulses. People were no longer worried about not being able to eat or about being killed for insulting the king. Life was more comfortable and easier. People now had a ton of free time to sit and think and worry about all sorts of existential shit that they had never considered before.
As a result, several movements arose in the late twentieth century championing the Feeling Brain.²⁴ And indeed, liberating the Feeling Brain from the Thinking Brain’s suppression was incredibly therapeutic for millions of people (and continues to be so today).
The problem was that people began to go too far the other way. They went from recognizing and honoring their feelings to the other extreme of believing that their feelings were the only thing that mattered. This has been particularly true for white, middle-class yuppies who were raised under the Classic Assumption, grew up miserable, and then got in touch with their Feeling Brains at a much later age. Because these people never had any real problems in their lives other than feeling bad, they erroneously came to believe that feelings were all that mattered and that the Thinking Brain’s maps were merely inconvenient distractions from those feelings. Many of these people called this shutting off of their Thinking Brains in favor of their Feeling Brains “spiritual growth,” and convinced themselves that being self-absorbed twats brought them closer to enlightenment,²⁵ when, really, they were indulging the old Feeling Brain. It was the same old Clown Car with a new, spiritual-looking paint job.²⁶
The overindulgence of emotion leads to a crisis of hope, but so does the repression of emotion.²⁷
The person who denies his Feeling Brain numbs himself to the world around him. By rejecting his emotions, he rejects making value judgments, that is, deciding that one thing is better than another. As a result, he becomes indifferent to life and the results of his decisions. He struggles to engage with others. His relationships suffer. And eventually, his chronic indifference leads him to an unpleasant visit with the Uncomfortable Truth. After all, if nothing is more or less important, then there’s no reason to do anything. And if there’s no reason to do anything, then why live at all?
Meanwhile, the person who denies his Thinking Brain becomes impulsive and selfish, warping reality to conform to his whims and fancies, which are then never satiated. His crisis of hope is that no matter how much he eats, drinks, dominates, or fucks, it will never be enough—it will never matter enough, it will never feel significant enough. He will be on a perpetual treadmill of desperation, always running, though never moving. And if at any point he stops, the Uncomfortable Truth immediately catches up to him.
I know. I’m being dramatic again. But I have to be, Thinking Brain. Otherwise, the Feeling Brain will get bored and close this book. Ever wonder why a page-turner is a page-turner? It’s not you turning those pages, idiot; it’s your Feeling Brain. It’s the anticipation and suspense; the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of resolution. Good writing is writing that is able to speak to and stimulate both brains at the same time.
And this is the whole problem: speaking to both brains, integrating our brains into a cooperative, coordinated, unified whole. Because if self-control is an illusion of the Thinking Brain’s overblown self-regard, then it’s self-acceptance that will save us—accepting our emotions and working with them rather than against them. But to develop that self-acceptance, we have to do some work, Thinking Brain. Let’s talk. Meet me in the next section.
An Open Letter to Your Thinking Brain
Hey, Thinking Brain.
How are things? How’s the family? How’d that tax situation work out?
Oh, wait. Never mind. I forgot—I don’t fucking care.
Look, I know there’s something the Feeling Brain is screwing up for you. Maybe it’s an important relationship. Maybe it’s causing you to make embarrassing phone calls at 3:00 a.m. Maybe it’s constantly medicating itself with substances it probably shouldn’t be using. I know there’s something you wish you could control about yourself but can’t. And I imagine, at times, this problem causes you to lose hope.
But listen, Thinking Brain, those things you hate so much about your Feeling Brain—the cravings, the impulses, the horrible decision making? You need to find a way to empathize with them. Because that’s the only language the Feeling Brain really understands: empathy. The Feeling Brain is a sensitive creature; it’s made out of your damn feelings, after all. I wish it weren’t true. I wish you could just show it a spreadsheet to make it understand—you know, like we understand. But you can’t.
Instead of bombarding the Feeling Brain with facts and reason, start by asking how it’s feeling. Say something like “Hey, Feeling Brain, how do you feel about going to the gym today?” or “How do you feel about changing careers?” or “How do you feel about selling everything and moving to Tahiti?”
The Feeling Brain won’t respond with words. No, the Feeling Brain is too quick for words. Instead, it will respond with feelings. Yeah, I know that’s obvious, but sometimes you’re kind of a dumbass, Thinking Brain.
The Feeling Brain might respond with a feeling of laziness or a feeling of anxiety. There might even be multiple emotions, a little bit of excitement with a pinch of anger thrown into the mix. Whatever it is, you, as the Thinking Brain (aka, the responsible one in this cranium), need to remain nonjudgmental in the face of whatever feelings arise. Feeling lazy? That’s okay; we all feel lazy sometimes. Feeling self-loathing? Perhaps that’s an invitation to take the conversation further. The gym can wait.
It’s important to let the Feeling Brain air out all its icky, twisted feelings. Just get them out into the open where they can breathe, because the more they breathe, the weaker their grip is on the steering wheel of your Consciousness Car.²⁸
Then, once you feel you’ve reached a point of understanding with your Feeling Brain, it’s time to appeal to it in a way it understands: through feelings. Maybe think about all the benefits of some desired new behavior. Maybe mention all the sexy, shiny, fun things at the desired destination. Maybe remind the Feeling Brain how good it feels to have exercised, how great it will feel to look good in a bathing suit this summer, how much you respect yourself when you’ve followed through on your goals, how happy you are when you live by your values, when you act as an example to the ones you love.
Basically, you need to bargain with your Feeling Brain the way you’d bargain with a Moroccan rug seller: it needs to believe it’s getting a good deal, or else there’ll just be a lot of hand waving and shouting with no result. Maybe you agree to do something the Feeling Brain likes, as long as it does something it doesn’t like. Watch your favorite TV show, but only at the gym while you’re on the treadmill. Go out with friends, but only if you’ve paid your bills for the month.²⁹
Start easy. Remember, the Feeling Brain is highly sensitive, and completely unreasonable.
When you offer something easy with an emotional benefit (e.g., feeling good after a workout; pursuing a career that feels significant; being admired and respected by your kids), the Feeling Brain will respond with another emotion, either positive or negative. If the emotion is positive, the Feeling Brain will be willing to drive a little bit in that direction—but only a little bit! Remember: feelings never last. That’s why you start small. Just put on your gym shoes today, Feeling Brain. That’s all. Let’s just see what happens.³⁰
If the Feeling Brain’s response is negative, you simply acknowledge that negative emotion and offer another compromise. See how the Feeling Brain responds. Then rinse and repeat.
But whatever you do, do not fight the Feeling Brain. That just makes things worse. For one, you won’t win, ever. The Feeling Brain is always driving. Second, fighting with the Feeling Brain about feeling bad will only cause the Feeling Brain to feel even worse. So, why would you do that? You were supposed to be the smart one, Thinking Brain.
This dialogue with your Feeling Brain will continue back and forth like this, on and off, for days, weeks, or maybe even months. Hell, years. This dialogue between the brains takes practice. For some, the practice will be recognizing what emotion the Feeling Brain is putting out there. Some people’s Thinking Brains have ignored their Feeling Brains for so long that it takes them a while to learn how to listen again.
Others will have the opposite problem: They will have to train their Thinking Brain to speak up, force it to propose an independent thought (a new direction) that’s separate from the Feeling Brain’s feelings. They will have to ask themselves, what if my Feeling Brain is wrong to feel this way? and then consider the alternatives. This will be difficult for them at first. But the more this dialogue occurs, the more the two brains will begin to listen to each other. The Feeling Brain will start giving off different emotions, and the Thinking Brain will have a better understanding of how to help the Feeling Brain navigate the road of life.
This is what’s referred to in psychology as “emotional regulation,” and it’s basically learning how to put a bunch of fucking guardrails and One Way signs along your road of life to keep your Feeling Brain from careening off a cliff.³¹ It’s hard work, but it’s arguably the only work.
Because you don’t get to control your feelings, Thinking Brain. Self-control is an illusion. It’s an illusion that occurs when both brains are aligned and pursuing the same course of action. It’s an illusion designed to give people hope. And when the Thinking Brain isn’t aligned with the Feeling Brain, people feel powerless, and the world around them begins to feel hopeless. The only way you consistently nail that illusion is by consistently communicating and aligning the brains around the same values. It’s a skill, much the same as playing water polo or juggling knives is a skill. It takes work. And there will be failures along the way. You might slice your arm open and bleed everywhere. But that’s just the cost of admission.
But here’s what you do have, Thinking Brain. You may not have self-control, but you do have meaning control. This is your superpower. This is your gift. You get to control the meaning of your impulses and feelings. You get to decipher them however you see fit. You get to draw the map. And this is incredibly powerful, because it’s the meaning that we ascribe to our feelings that can often alter how the Feeling Brain reacts to them.
And this is how you produce hope. This is how you produce a sense that the future can be fruitful and pleasant: by interpreting the shit the Feeling Brain slings at you in a profound and useful way. Instead of justifying and enslaving yourself to the impulses, challenge them and analyze them. Change their character and their shape.
This is basically what good therapy is, of course. Self-acceptance and emotional intelligence and all that. Actually, this whole “teach your Thinking Brain to decipher and cooperate with your Feeling Brain instead of judging him and thinking he’s an evil piece of shit” is the basis for CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) and a lot of other fun acronyms that clinical psychologists invented to make our lives better.
Our crises of hope often start with a basic sense that we do not have control over ourselves or our destiny. We feel victims to the world around us or, worse, to our own minds. We fight our Feeling Brain, trying to beat it into submission. Or we do the opposite and follow it mindlessly. We ridicule ourselves and hide from the world because of the Classic Assumption. And in many ways, the affluence and connectivity of the modern world only make the pain of the illusion of self-control that much worse.
But this is your mission, Thinking Brain, should you choose to accept it: Engage the Feeling Brain on its own terms. Create an environment that can bring about the Feeling Brain’s best impulses and intuition, rather than its worst. Accept and work with, rather than against, whatever the Feeling Brain spews at you.
Everything else (all the judgments and assumptions and self-aggrandizement) is an illusion. It was always an illusion. You don’t have control, Thinking Brain. You never did, and you never will. Yet, you needn’t lose hope.
Antonio Damasio ended up writing a celebrated book called Descartes’ Error about his experiences with “Elliot,” and much of his other research. In it, he argues that the same way the Thinking Brain produces a logical, factual form of knowledge, the Feeling Brain develops its own type of value-laden knowledge.³² The Thinking Brain makes associations among facts, data, and observations. Similarly, the Feeling Brain makes value judgments based on those same facts, data, and observations. The Feeling Brain decides what is good and what is bad; what is desirable and what is undesirable; and most important, what we deserve and what we don’t deserve.
The Thinking Brain is objective and factual. The Feeling Brain is subjective and relative. And no matter what we do, we can never translate one form of knowledge into the other.³³ This is the real problem of hope. It’s rare that we don’t understand intellectually how to cut back on carbs, or wake up earlier, or stop smoking. It’s that somewhere inside our Feeling Brain, we have decided that we don’t deserve to do those things, that we are unworthy of doing them. And that’s why we feel so bad about them.
This feeling of unworthiness is usually the result of some bad shit happening to us at some point. We suffer through some terrible stuff, and our Feeling Brain decides that we deserved those bad experiences. Therefore, it sets out, despite the Thinking Brain’s better knowledge, to repeat and reexperience that suffering.
This is the fundamental problem of self-control. This is the fundamental problem of hope—not an uneducated Thinking Brain, but an uneducated Feeling Brain, a Feeling Brain that has adopted and accepted poor value judgments about itself and the world. And this is the real work of anything that even resembles psychological healing: getting our values straight with ourselves so that we can get our values straight with the world.
Put another way, the problem isn’t that we don’t know how not to get punched in the face. The problem is that, at some point, likely a long time ago, we got punched in face, and instead of punching back, we decided we deserved it.