Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Change Your Own Oil!

One of the most useful things I’ve gleaned from my study of psychology has been an understanding that there are mechanical reasons for our emotions. We are like cars, and require regular maintenance.

When I got my first car, my dad showed me how to change my oil and my tires. He tried to teach me how to fix the breaks so I wouldn’t have to go to mechanics all of the time as an adult. ‘Why not just go to the mechanic?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Sometimes you will have to go to the mechanic. Some things are going to be too big or require equipment that is too specialized for you to fix on your own. But for a lot of this stuff, it’s pretty easy to fix it if you just understand it. Mechanics will charge way too much, and will try to trick you into getting other things ‘fixed’ that aren’t actually broken.’

I think the licensed holy man is pretty much like the mechanic. They can provide a service, but often that service costs too much, sometimes coming with bells and whistles that are either irrelevant or occasionally malignant, and are not doing anything you couldn’t do for yourself with a little bit of study, or possibly counseling*.

There is no voodoo in science. Not real science, anyway. When something causes us any kind of psychic pain, when the gears start to grind, there will always be a practical mechanical solution that will typically get you back on the road soon enough.

For instance, a Christian may tell you that the reason you are uncomfortable is because you are a fallen being. You have an inherently sinful nature. You are drawn to anger quickly by disagreeable events because of these chafing facts about yourself. You must submit, and acknowledge that no good can come from you, and you must surrender yourself to God. Clear yourself out of yourself! They will say. Make room for Him. Is it as painful for you to read this as it is for me to write it? If so, there’s a reason for that: It’s bullshit.

Our amygdale is the passion center in our brain. Our frontal lobes are our more rational zones. It turns out it’s not because we crucified Christ that we are sometimes quick to anger. It’s because—much as a person wears a footpath in grass by regularly walking through it—we create these neural connections by regularly treading through the same areas of our brain. As it turns out, the best way to curb your anger is to do some math problems, and to buy yourself some time by exiting anger inducing scenarios in order to give the frontal lobes a chance to assess the situation before the wrecking crews go to work.

Knowing how the vehicle works is such a boon to understanding many of our problems. How many of us would be more careful about punishing our children if we realized that the frontal lobes aren’t fully developed until we are in our mid twenties? Kids have poor impulse control, because those zones of their brains are under construction. How many fewer teenage suicides would there be if more people grasped the reality that there’s a lot of uprooting and rearranging going on in the brain during puberty?

Consider this: It’s been demonstrated that prepubescent children are better at empathizing with the facial representation of different emotions in others than are pubescent kids, even though kids in puberty are older. There are mechanical reasons for this.

So, there’s no reason for people to throw themselves off of bridges because their blood sugar is low. No need for me to punch my neighbor in the face when I’m angry about his dog’s incessant barking. It is good to have a positive, personal philosophy. There are many good values to be derived from a wide swath of religious and artistic thought. But it is also very important to know on a nuts and bolts level how the damned thing runs in the first place.

*Much like the mechanic, I would never advise you to turn away advice offered to you informally by a member of the holy class that you may know personally. When they’re not on the clock, I imagine the assessment of your problems is probably going to be more frank, and practical. Advice and counsel offered from one human to the other in the name of genuine empathy and concern is a wonderful thing. When one person, however, begins channeling that advice, empathy and concern from some ‘on high’ source, I say, watch out! And keep an eye on your wallet.


Lodo Grdzak said...

Good one Spence. Hope you had a nice vacation.

Spencer Troxell said...

I did have a good time. Thanks for the kudos. I'll be over to catch up on your posts in the next couple of days. Graduation is a week away, and I'm applying for jobs/writing final papers like a fiend.