You are not the only voice in your head

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Have you ever had this experience?

You are in the middle of doing something and out of nowhere, you suddenly, and very clearly, hear the voice of one of your parents in your head making a comment to you?

That voice can sometimes be so clear that you catch yourself jumping, and react to it exactly as if that parent was in the same room with you. Talking back to the voice to explain yourself, or just laughing along.

This is a common experience and, because the voice is so recognizable, we can easily see it as a voice that is different from our own voice in our head.

However, this is not the only voice in our head that is different from our own. There are many more of them which we don’t recognize as easily. Different cultures have stories that describe this concept in different ways.

Western European culture for instance, has the idea of two beings sitting on our shoulders, whispering thoughts and ideas into our minds.

On one shoulder is an angel, and on the other, a devil.
Whenever we get into a complicated situation, they both offer different ideas and suggestions into our minds. If we listen to the right one, the situation will get better, if we listen to the wrong one then we are headed for a lot of trouble.

Another reference to this idea is an old Native American story with a slightly deeper perspective.

A grandfather is telling his grandchild a story.
He says:
“There are two wolves fighting in your heart.
One is darkness, hate and despair.
The other is light, love and hope.”
The grandchild thinks about this and asks “Which wolf will win?”
The grandfather smiles and answers “The wolf that you feed.”

Both these examples talk about two other voices we have in our head and hearts. They carry a common and powerful lesson.

Just because a thought pops into our head, or an emotion flows into our heart, it does not mean we have to accept it as our own.

We can question it, challenge it, even reject it.

The second story adds another useful idea. The voice which we continually agree with, the one whose ideas we follow more often, is the voice that we are feeding. It becomes the stronger voice, with more power to influence our future.

Stopping with just these stories introduces a risk though.

When we think of them as just two voices, one right and one wrong, we may begin to spend a huge amount of energy trying to identify which voice is the good one. Or spend a lot of time worrying that the one we chose to listen to was the wrong one.

Of course, there are such things as a positive thoughts and negative thoughts.
Or put another way, helpful thoughts and dangerous thoughts.
However, we are very bad at identifying the source of a thought or emotion. Especially in the heat of the moment.

This post talks about a different model we can use to view these thoughts. To interact and hopefully come to a more positive solutions.

Just remember to keep this quote in mind:

All models are wrong. But some models are useful.

First, let’s look at a more flexible model.

In the 1960’s a neuroscientist, Paul D. McLean  suggested the theory of the three in one brain (The triune brain ). This theory divided the thinking part of the brain into three different sections based on their function.

Based on this idea, he developed various other theories as well. Theories about when each part of the brain evolved, which animals would have the different parts of the brain and other things like that. Modern neuroscientists have challenged and disproved these parts of his theories. However, they still largely agree on what the three sections of the brain are, and what they do.

The first part he described is the most primitive part of the brain. It’s called the “Reptilian Complex” or the “Basal Ganglia“.

It deals with our most primal emotions.
Things like Hunger, Fear, Rage, Sex, etc.
Basically, the things all animals need to deal with in order to survive and procreate. Some of our most powerful urges come from here. Which makes sense, since the issues it deals with are often life and death issues.

The next level he described as the part of the brain coming from ancient mammals. The “Paleo-mammalian Complex” or the “Limbic System“).

This part is responsible for motivation and emotion. Specifically, the emotions and drives related to surviving in a group or society.
Things like Making friends, Relating with family, Identifying enemies (not the type of enemies that want to eat us though. Rather the type enemies that want to steal your food or drive you out of the group), even Romance (which is separate from the sex drive).

If we watch nature documentaries about animals living in packs (like those cute meerkat ones), we will see a lot of this type of behavior.

This part of our brain also produces very powerful urges (only slightly less powerful than the primitive part).

This is because, in a dangerous or primitive society, the issue of who likes you and who doesn’t like you can also be a matter of life and death.

The third part he described as the modern mammal part of the brain (The Neomammalian complex or the NeoCortex). 

This is the most advanced part of the brain.

It contains the ability for language, planning, thinking abstractly and other analytical thought. Basically, all the things that we consider as intelligent thought.

It is the part that produces our most brilliant ideas. It is also the quietest part of the brain. This is because it is purely focused on making our lives better (while the other parts are focused on making sure we have a life).

For simplicity and clarity to help us in using this model, I like to use a less technical set of labels.

The animal brain – deals with life and death issues.

I imagine it as a pet wolf. Sometimes cute and cuddly, sometimes large and ferocious.

The child brain – deals with friends, family, and emotional pleasure or pain.

Imagine a four year old arriving at a new nursery school.
Meeting new people, discovering new things and going from super sad to super happy every few seconds.

Finally, The genius brain – Basically the smart, geeky one.

Sitting at a desk, surrounded by high tech equipment, working on complicated problems like:
How much time do we have till we miss the train,
How much should the tip on a $13.50 dinner be ,
By the way, if we leave our keys there, we’ll probably forget them when we leave.

Each of these three areas is then further sub-divided into smaller areas that deal with different tasks and responsibilities.

For example, one animal brain character might be focused on whether we need to eat or not. While another animal brain character might be focused on whether we need to rest or not. If both these animals are upset, it can lead to the classic feeling of “Too tired to cook, too hungry to rest. “

So, what we are describing are three types of characters in our brains.

A pack of powerful animals,
A group of excitable children,
And a school of gentle geniuses.

Each of these parts of the brain have their own tasks, responsibilities and concerns which they have to deal with. Quite often they go about their business without our conscious help.

However, they don’t automatically know what to do. They are not hard-wired.

E.g. there is no in-built brain code for the guide dog character. The one that helps us walk home safely from the station, while we are totally focused on watching an interesting youtube clip on our phone. It has to learn our route and practice it with us day by day. Until it becomes an expert able to handle it for us almost perfectly even when we are totally distracted.
(Ps, please don’t watch youtube clips when crossing the road!)

Like us, these characters have to learn and grow.

In order to do this, each character has a goal. A particular task or area of our life that they are concerned with. They are constantly figuring out how to work towards that goal. They can even develop their own different mini-personalities.

The good news, is that each of these characters wants to help make our life better.
The bad news, is that they each have a different idea what “better” is.

That’s because, although each one becomes an expert at the one thing it is responsible for, it doesn’t learn very much about anything else.

That can then lead to cases where these characters are giving different advice or even arguing with each other.

For example:

We’ve had a really busy day at work, so we missed both breakfast and lunch.
On our way home, we decide to pop into the shop to get something for dinner.

One of these characters (probably a hunger animal) is already shouting loudly.

“Yesss, food! Finally!!! We are starving! We haven’t eaten all day!!
Food must be super-scarce right now. Let’s catch as much as possible!!  And eat it all! Immediately! Before it escapes!!!”

While that is happening another character (an excited child brain one) is saying
“Oooh, ice cream! 😍 We love that. We haven’t had ice cream in aaaggggeees! Look, there are chocolate brownies too!!! Those are absolutely delicious with ice cream!!  🥰🥰.
Oh, wow!! They have our favorite cookies!!💗💓💗💓”

Meanwhile there is a smart brain voice quietly commenting, “Ummm, how much food are we buying exactly?? Last time we went shopping this hungry, we ended up throwing out almost half the food.”

(Might be based on a true story)

If these conflicting conversations are going on and we think of all these voices as “me”, then it becomes very difficult to figure out what to do. Because, in that moment, we want to do too many different things.

Alternatively, if we think of those voices as “good voices” vs. “bad voices”, then we are trying to figure out which is right and which is wrong. Once we choose to listen to one, we must then ignore the others.

However, if we acknowledge each of these as a character in us but different from us, then we can begin to view these thoughts in a different way. We can see them as suggestions, from different characters, who are trying to help.

  • It is true that, if we haven’t been eating well recently, we need more food to maintain our energy and other nutrients for our health.
  • It is true that, when we are stressed and tired after a long day, it is good to take some time to indulge ourselves. An ice cream with dinner could work, or an episode of our favorite show, or maybe an enjoyable walk in the park tomorrow.
  • It is also true that, the last time we went shopping when we were this hungry, we ended up wasting more than half of the food we bought.

Based on this, we can then listen to the different opinions of these characters. We can put them into context. Even ask the opinions of some other brain members. Then we can make a decision. A decision we have chosen.

That choice, the choice to hear our thoughts and feelings without reacting automatically, always exists. It is a powerful choice. It allows us to acknowledge our feelings without being driven by them. And, as we improve our awareness of that choice, we gain a much more powerful say in the direction our lives take.

As we have mentioned, each of these characters is a specialist in its own area and often has more information in that area than we do. They also have our best interest (as they understand it) at heart.

However, it isn’t easy to know which character is thinking or feeling at any particular time.

For instance, let’s say we feel like eating some ice cream.

  • Is that because our nutrition animal is telling us that our blood sugar is low and we need to top up?
  • Is that because our habit animal is telling us that we are approaching the time when we usually get a sweet snack?
  • Is that because our indulgence child wants us to do something fun?
  • Or is that just because I’ve mentioned ice cream so many times in this post? (I promise I don’t work for Mcflurries)

As we practice working with these different aspects of our minds, we will get better at telling them apart. That is a beneficial side effect but not the direct goal we are working towards .

Our goal also isn’t to bend all the characters to our will. Trying to make them all do what we want, feel what we want, think what we want. It is true that doing this for short periods can be a good willpower building exercise. However, because each character is a specialist in its own field, if we over-rule them, we lose the benefit of their knowledge.

Our initial goal is improve the lines of communication with our personal cast of characters. To get into the habit of responding to a powerful thought or feeling by asking questions…, and listening for the answer.

Why do we want some ice cream right now?

Why does this make us so upset?

Where did we get that idea about ourselves?

As we do, we get to understand the personalities of our cast of characters better. And that knowledge begins to bring us to a point where we not only learn from them, but we can begin to teach them as well. To help them, and us, become better at achieving that thing we desire. Building a better, more fulfilling life for ourselves. A life we can be proud of and a life we can more fully enjoy.

The first step to doing this, is simply practicing giving ourselves the mental space to ask that question.

When a character is shouting loudly in our heads, with loud thoughts or powerful emotions, to practise taking a breath, asking the question and choosing a response. Rather than being dragged along by whichever character is currently the loudest.

Looking at our thoughts and emotions through this lens can provide insight and ideas on how to approach many different areas of our lives.

From creating and changing habits to dealing with intense emotions. Even helping with some of our addictions or rebuilding our whole worldview into a more positive one.

This is a topic I will be referring to and expanding on in many of future posts. Talking about how to use it in different ways.

The next post however, is simply going to be a practical example of using this idea to interact with our cast of characters. Hopefully, it will help make some of the abstract ideas discussed here more concrete and usable.

For Further Study

The Road Less Traveled – A book by Scott Peck

This is an amazing book which I recommend to everyone who is interested in personal growth.
I mention it here because he talks about the power of the choice gap. That gap between impulse and reaction. The gap where so much power lies.
He also talks about the source of our worldviews and how they affect us. As well as a whole host of ideas and techniques which we can use to help us grow.

The Red Prophet – A fantasy novel by Orson Scott Card

This story came to mind while I was writing this post and at first I wasn’t sure why. After browsing the story again I realized that it was because the book is about people working their way through very painful situations to find the most powerful and positive answers. This is often the case when we try to interact with some of our more powerful voices.

It is an old book. The style of writing is a bit dated and maybe slightly controversial. However, the descriptions he gives of dealing with intense ideas and emotions (like fear, anger, hate) are very accurate and, as such, very useful.

The book is part two of the “Tales of Alvin Maker series”. If you like it then I recommend the whole series.

In other news:
I recently heard a podcast which was a great example of water-style kungfu.
In it an ex-spy was being interviewed and talked about a time when someone tried to mug him. The spy ended up getting beaten up.
However, for him that was a success! Even though he was trained in martial arts, he consciously didn’t aim to crush the opponent in front of him. Rather he kept his eye on the bigger goal, and carefully redirected the situation so that he could get the best outcome (getting beaten up).

This is the link to the podcast (Planet Money – Episode 791).
I will retrospectively add it as “For Further Study” to the “Be like water” post   

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: