There’s a lot of dismal entertainment dotting the electronic landscape. My tastes run pretty eclectic. I’ll watch and greatly enjoy documentaries like The Making of a Murderer, comedies like Jane, the Virgin and Mozart in the Jungle, and a mixed martial arts drama series like Kingdom. One recent episode of The Profit really highlighted a particular way in which our brain is often very vulnerable in its daily operations, and so makes keeping hard commitments challenging.
This particular episode involved Inkka Shoes, a super-creative custom footwear manufacturer. The three partners call on Marcus Lemonis to help them turn the business around. When Marcus shows up they essentially have $2000 in the bank and are on the verge of collapse. Right away Marcus goes to work on “people, process and products.” His first directive to the 3 partners: reduce the number of product SKUs they are producing.
Next he gives Daniel, the CEO, explicit instructions: “Go to the fabric store and pick just five patterns that we’ll use to focus the product line.” Naturally, as is pretty predictable, Daniel goes out and picks patterns that trigger a dopamine rush in his creative brain circuitry. But instead of only 5 – he comes back with 40 of them!
Marcus is beside himself, apparently not recognizing that Daniel has Executive Function circuitry that doesn’t work very well. He simply can’t turn off the juice after he’s picked five patterns. Much like it does for a child, every pretty pattern holds great neuro-ecstatic, dopaminergic allure.
So, that’s the first reason we quit things: Poor Executive Functioning neural networks that constantly draw us on to the next new thing. It’s like the controller in our Air Traffic Tower is AWOL.
Compromised Arousal Regulation
Together with Executive Function, the next work of a healthy brain is to keep arousal regulated, to keep emotions in balance. There’s a window of arousal that we generally operate most efficiently within, a kind of neurological Goldilocks Zone. Go too far below the window, and we end up without sufficient energy and motivation to consistently get much of anything initiated or accomplished.
Go too far above the window and we enter “afflictive emotions” territory. Little good happens up there. When we find ourselves hijacked in Hyperarousal Land, our adrenal glands have essentially become the boss of us. I have previously made the argument in this blog that the primary purpose of most spiritual traditions is to help us become the boss of our adrenal glands. Without such mastery we’re subject to all kinds of ills you might recognize in this list.
One less-than-optimal, but sometimes necessary way to manage arousal regulation is to “flee the scene” – leave a job, relationship or spiritual tradition that is literally making us sick. But one dynamic that makes fleeing the scene potentially troublesome is that “wherever we go, there we are” – we take our brain and body and unconscious personal history with us.
For most of us, compromised arousal regulation has it’s roots buried in early childhood. When I first came across the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs) research, fifteen years after it was first published, much of my struggle as an adult – difficulty regulating social stress, lack of verbal fluency, difficulty sustaining focus for extended periods, panic attacks – suddenly made perfect sense. They all correlate highly with the disorganized, fragmented neural networks that result from overwhelming early childhood experiences. That was the bad news. The good news was that a whole host of brief, somatic therapeutic interventions have been developed over the last decade or so that can actually reorganize many of the less-than-optimal conditions that result from ACEs. Here’s a list of a few generally well-regarded therapeutic modalities.
When our early lives have been filled with adverse early experiences, the structures in our brain necessary for detecting environmental threats grows a super-abundance of cells to help insure our survival. This evolutionary preference leaves the prefrontal areas – so necessary for cognitive control – with short shrift. As a result our ability to self-monitor and self-regulate is often seriously damaged or delayed. We are also much more likely to fall victim to our brain making up stories of fear and dread and then acting as if they are destined to come true.
Environments that Promote Situated Cognition
Oh, one other thing that contributes to us quitting: environments – people, places and things – that don’t foster mindful awareness. Such environments tend to super-stress us and shape what we can think, say and do. Or more often: what we can’t think, say or do. Best to be deliberately selective about the places we go and spend significant amounts of the time of our lives.