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Feed the Monkey! Understanding and Harnessing BSOS (bright shinny object syndrome)

In 2001, on my way to the Mt. Everest base camp and the summit of Mt. Kala Patar, I visited the stupa at Swayanabath located on a hill on the western edge of Kathmandu, Nepal.  Also known as the “Monkey Temple” (because it’s crawling and leaping with monkeys), this is a must-see for anyone visiting this beautiful South Asia gateway to the Himalayas.

Our guide cautioned against getting too close to the monkeys.  They bite.  She also warned that if we let go of any shinny objects, like cameras, even for a second, the monkeys will snatch, run and do an in-your-face-victory-dance.  They love bright, shiny objects.

Monkeys are not the only ones afflicted with BSOS.  It afflicts all of us.  We are not as rational as we think we are.  In fact, we are just a missing link away from being the monkey grabbing the watch.  No excuses, just fact.

For years we have known about the evolutionary process of the brain.  How In many invertebrates (think worms), the nervous system consists of no more than a net or bundle of nerve cells. After the worms, comes that goldfish who’s driving your cat crazy, the bird circling over your head, the croaking frog that keeps you awake at night and the snake in the grass that freaks you out.  All have pretty well developed brains made up of the cerebellum, tectum and basal ganglia. These structures help these creatures see, hear, move about and respond reflexively (tap on the outside of the goldfish bowl and you’ll see what I’m talking about).

The big leap in evolution came with the development of the outer brain, the neocortex.  It is this development, and in particular the frontal region, that is responsible for increased intelligence and the potential for solid executive decision making.  All mammals have a neocortex but the higher primates, chimpanzees and humans have disproportionately larger neocortices.  Not speaking for the Chimps, but we humans don’t always live up to our potential.  We often…way too often, drop down a couple rungs on the evolutionary ladder and lead with the emotion driven mid-brain (think monkeys and bright shiny objects) rather than with our outer rationale gray matter.

Why Do Smart People Do Stupid Things?

Question:  So, why do we smoke, eat too much, drink to excess, watch too much television, not exercise regularly, and fly off the handle at the slightest provocation?

Answer:  Because all of these actions, reactions, and no-actions are good for us.  Huh?  Good for us?!  Yes, good for us.  At least — at a very primal level — we feel that way. The monkey brain that drives BSOS is automatic, ritualistic, and highly resistant to change.  Its only concern is survival and its only time-focus is now.  It does not judge behavior or anticipate consequence it simply wants pleasure (or, freedom from pain) NOW! This is the home of our stress response — the launch point for our decision to fight or take flight.  Without giving it much thought, things like smoking a cigarette is justified/demanded as a logical reaction to distress; so are drinking too much, sleeping too much, drug abuse, and many other behaviors that take us out of our conscious world when we perceive the conscious world as a threat.  Trace any behavior back far enough and you will find an emotional payoff.  The intent is never to harm oneself.  The intent of the monkey is to always feel better regardless what our rational thoughts tell us.

Question:  Backup for a second.  How do unhealthy behaviors get started, in the first place, and why do they continue?  From the time we are little we are told about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs.  We are also told of the benefits of proper nutrition and exercise.  What went wrong?

Answer: Now, think about it, most unhealthy habits practiced by adults start during their teens and early 20s.  Keep in mind the fact that the cerebral cortex and more specifically, the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain … the home of judgment and reasoning), is the last part of the brain to develop.  Most researchers suggest 18 – 20 years before it’s completely developed; some say as many as 25 years.  This means that emotions and emotionally driven behaviors dominate during those years.  As an infant, and as a child, our emotions are closely monitored and influenced by our parents and teachers.  We are their emotional dependants.  However, as we hit the teen years, hormones begin to push the emotional dependency away from the old folks and toward people our own age.  We seek out and listen to people who look, talk, think, act, and react as we do.

The sage advice, warnings, and demands to stay away from sex, drugs, and rock & roll are increasingly vulnerable to the emotional/visceral pull toward peer acceptance and belonging, no matter what the intellect says.  If fighting pass coughing, throat burning, and horrible taste is what it takes to smoke cigarettes, then so be it.  Same goes for choking down that first beer or fighting off health facts and guilt-strewn lectures about sex and sexual abstinence.  Unfortunately, the more we engage in these behaviors, the more difficult it is to stop them.  These new behaviors, with repetition, are pushed to a section of our brain containing the basil ganglia.  This is where the neural circuits of long-standing habit are formed and held.  The basil ganglia operate without much effort and consume very little energy.  What does this mean for behavior?  It means that behaviors that were once “unthinkable” have become just that — behaviors done with little or no thought at all.  What smoker hasn’t lit a cigarette while another one burns in an ashtray?  How about pouring a drink while a half-filled glass sits on the table across the room?  Biting fingernails without realizing it?  Throwing a bag of chips into the shopping cart, automatically?  How about that pledge to eat, “just one?”  Habit is the brain remembering and, when feeling better is matched with a specific behavior, the brain chemistry doesn’t want you to forget!



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