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  • Jan Flynn

Brainversations: Getting Along With Your Neocortex


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When you talk to your brain, be kind.

Wait — you don’t talk to your brain? Are you sure?

I mean, when you say things to yourself, often rather harsh things like, “Seriously? This is the third time today you’ve lost your phone,” who are you talking to?

Your immediate answer may be, “Well, myself, naturally.” But think about it for a minute — y’know, with your brain — and you’ll discover that very often it’s the You part of you, the larger You, your Self, who is in conversation with a portion of you that’s in your service, or at least is supposed to be. Like a disgruntled board of directors questioning the CEO, you’re having a come-to-Jesus with your executive functions: in other words, your brain.

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I do this all the time. Often out loud, a trait my loved ones have learned to tolerate. I conduct regular conferences with my brain as part of its effective management. Otherwise its annual performance reviews are likely to be an unpleasant surprise, and neither of us — my self, my brain — want that.

To be fair, I expect a lot from my brain. I expect it to be on call 24/7/365 except when I’m sleeping (and even then I often can’t get it to take time off: my brain is a notorious workaholic who doesn’t get the whole work/life balance thing). I expect it to switch priorities seamlessly while simultaneously maintaining efficient performance across multiple platforms. For instance, I demand that it be able to assess the progress of a pot of spaghetti while fielding a robo-call from a political campaign and coming up with the correct question on Jeopardy, all at  the same time. And do I ever think to praise it for its unfailing attention to the maintenance functions that keep me going, like breathing and metabolizing my food?

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Having spent decades in the company of my brain, I’ve learned that it’s best to employ finesse when I want something from it. Rebukes and threats either make it anxious and afraid of making mistakes, causing it to slow down, or result in it going into a sulk and refusing to produce anything at all. Familiar with my brain’s quirks and proclivities, I know that a polite but firm approach is called for. This is never more true than when assigning it a higher-function, sustained task such as writing.

Here’s a typical conversation:

ME: So, Brain. I’m just reminding you that we’re going to start writing in three minutes.

BRAIN: We should check FaceBook!

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ME: We did that already. Remember, our goal today is to get through the next four scenes in Chapter 10, and if we look at our notes, we see that . . .

BRAIN: I think I need a nap.

ME: You can have a nap when we finish the chapter. So, remember, we’ve got our protagonist at the edge of the cliff . . .

BRAIN: Let’s plan that dinner party!

ME: Let’s not. Two more minutes. Writing. How are we going to get her off the cliff?

BRAIN: Ummmm . . .hmmmm. . .

ME: Great! You work on that, while I open the file and find where we left off yesterday.

At this point, BRAIN resorts to enlisting its innocent, sincere coworker, BODY.

BRAIN: (sotto voce) Psst, Body. I’ll bet you’re getting hungry, aren’t you?

BODY: Didn’t I just have breakfast?

BRAIN: That was a half-hour ago! Don’t you need a snack? Some chocolate?

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BODY: Ooooh, chocolate . . . sure, I want some chocolate.

ME: I know what you’re doing, Brain.

BRAIN: What, me? Body said it wants chocolate!

ME: We talked about this. Stop pestering Body.

BODY: I want chocolate. Really.

BRAIN: See?

ME: Tell you what, get the next scene drafted and then we can have some chocolate.

BODY: Okay!

BRAIN: Damn. (sighs) What are we doing again?

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ME: Chapter 10. She’s on the cliff, remember, and the bad guys are heading her way, and she’s terrified of heights, and . . .

BRAIN: Is it windy?

ME: Excuse me?

BRAIN: How about if it’s really, really windy? We’re still in the 19th century, right, so she’s got on a big huge skirt, and with all that wind blowing up the face of the cliff. . .

ME: Hey, I think you’re onto something, Brain!

BRAIN: Shh! I’m trying to work.

And so it goes.  Being a creature of habit, my brain offers less resistance when I provide it with a regular schedule and a certain amount of ritual — the right light, the right chair, a cup of coffee positioned nearby — but it always requires some prodding, some coaching. I am resigned to the fact that self-discipline is my job. After all, who’s the Self in this outfit?

How do your conversations with your brain go? Please leave a comment; we could all use more tips!

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