(Another chapter in my forthcoming non-fiction That Th!nk You Do (note the clever change in the title? Gotta love those creatives, don’t you?) The fascinating chapter numbers are due to unfinished editing. I hope to share the bookcover soon)
Do you have a little voice inside your head that warns you about things you’re about to do? Maybe it goes beyond warning you, perhaps it out and out chides you or even yells so loudly it stops you dead in your tracks?
Congratulations, you’ve been in touch with what people studying learning models call your critic (not a surprising name considering what it does, is it?).
Do you have a little voice inside your head that makes suggestions on how to get the most out of whatever you’re about to do? Maybe it goes beyond suggestions, maybe it reminds you of what worked and what didn’t in the past? Maybe it demands this path be followed over that path?
Congratulations again, now you’re talking with your actor.
Want to learn how to confuse them or even shut them up completely? It’s probably obvious (once you think about it) that our mind’s actor and critic come from different parts of the brain. The critic comes from the front part of the brain where reasoning occurs, the actor from the rear of the brain where we process vision and memory (generally speaking).
Both are necessary. They’re part of what’s called instrumental conditioning and constitute the most basic form of adaptive behavior. Adaptive behavior and instrumental conditioning are very important to our survival as individuals and as a species. We adapt how we behave in order to maximize rewards and minimize punishments, and that process of adapting is done in (hopefully) small steps by conditioning ourselves to our environment.
The actor reminds us what happened before in similar environments and helps us predict what to do in the present environment. The critic predicts future gains and losses by evaluating present conditions and information out of our direct experience. We need both of them. They work in tandem for most of us and people lacking one or the other tend to take unnecessary risks or avoid new situations altogether.
But what if your critic-actor is too critical or too…umm…actorial?
Both critic and actor cause the brain to send hormonal signals through the body. Most often these signals are survival oriented – great for the jungle and possibly night walks in a city, not quite the same as deciding what you should purchase or whether or not to get on that really big roller coaster.
So here’s how to deal with both and let you – your hopefully rational, thinking, intelligent self – make the decisions.
People think this is an odd suggestion and it comes from lots of studies. When your critic is saying “No, don’t! Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” respond with “Thanks. That’s good advice. I appreciate your letting me know that” or something similar.
Strangely enough, all the critic really wants to know is that you’re paying attention to warning signs in the environment. Letting your critic know you’re doing so is often enough to either shut it up or quiet it down, at least for a while. Similarly, agree with your actor. Same rules apply.
Second, Take a Deep BreathRemember those hormonal signals I mentioned? Those signals are survival based, as in fight or flight. Taking a deep breath, centering yourself, maybe even closing your eyes for a second, all send counter-signals telling your brain and body “It’s okay. You can relax now. I’m here.” Think of something funny, a joke or some such. Put a smile on your face. A real smile, not just a polite one. You’ll find you can think clearer when you do.
Third, Act Intentionally
Your critic and actor are exerting all sorts of energy to tell you what might, possibly could, or should happen. The truth is neither they nor you know what will happen. What you do know is what’s happening right “now” in the moment of the decision. This is where you take control of your adaptive learning and instrumental conditioning to your own best benefit. Decide what option looks best “as far as the eye can see” so to speak and make a deal with your actor and critic. Ask them to cover your back and let you know if something needs your attention. Nothing quiets these primitive parts of the mind more than asking them to help. Seriously.
Lastly, Take Small Steps
You’ve chosen a path, now move in that direction. Just a little, not a lot. Are you still okay? Everything still good? Great. Lather, Rinse, Repeat. The moment you can’t see what’s going on or things stop being okay, back up to your last safe spot and decide if you want to continue or not.
Your actor and critic are there for a reason. The goal is to use them rather than letting them abuse you.