The Blog

Stepping Out Of Automatic Pilot

Don't you often know what commentators will say, almost down to the phrase, even before they say it? The shouting and emotion can hide the deeper truth: It's all so boring and lifeless.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Do you ever get the sense that our culture is on automatic pilot? There is a back and forth in our cultural conversation that is amazingly predictable. Look at the chatter between left and right and you can see it. It's a bit frightening. Don't you often know what commentators will say, almost down to the phrase, even before they say it? The shouting and emotion can hide the deeper truth: It's all so boring and lifeless.

Have you notice the same thing in between your ears? When I stop to look there is an automaticity in my own head that is just plain creepy.

Up comes a thought. Out comes a reaction. Very predictable.

Giving thoughts causal status is what our culture encourages. Oddly, inside that system, it becomes true in a sense. But if we allow thoughts that kind of control, any idiot with a microphone has access to some of the buttons that control us.

Remember when you were taught how to tie your shoe? At first it was laborious. Make a loop. Loop the other string around the loop. Make a hole. Push the other string through and make a second loop. Pull both loops tight.

Gradually it got more automatic. Faster and fast you went. Eventually, after years and years, you could do it without even looking.

Suppose I did the first part of tying for you, and left you just with the final two loops? You'd know exactly what to do: pull them tight. Easy. In a sense the two loops now "cause" the pulling, based on a history of shoes and tying.

Suppose thoughts in our heads are like that? Young children have a hard time learning to be controlled by symbols and words, even their own. If you ask why they do things they can't tell you. If you ask them to do things they have a hard time following the instructions.

Eventually children learn. They learn to think and reason and problem solve. They learn how to react to thoughts as if thought are events of substance. They learn how to tie the knots our minds and culture gives us, without even looking.

Inside the system we live in normally, thoughts are what they say they are. They are about what is real. They require a response. Pull. Or if you don't pull, then explain why not. Push.

It is as if our minds are constantly giving us cognitive shoelace to tie. Once our minds can put two cognitive loops in front of us, we have to respond.

One loop: people don't like me. Another loop: I will feel better if I stay away. Pull the cognitive loops tight: avoid people. Push the loop: try to convince yourself that people like you. In either case, instead of living your life, you are off in your head, dealing with cognitive shoelaces.

Cognitive loops can carry us into the most dysfunctional places we can imagine.

One loop: I so feel awful life is not worth living. Another loop: I will feel better if
I'm dead. Pull the cognitive loops tight: entanglement, attempts, or even
"success." Push the loop: try to convince yourself that life is worth living. But in either case, vitality goes down while life is put on hold. Dealing with cognitive shoelaces is just so boring and lifeless.

The problem for us all is this: lots and lots of things can put cognitive loops in front of our mental hands. Logic will do it. History will do it. Abuse will do it. The TV will do it. Any idiot with a microphone can do it.

Even an old bald guy you never met can do it. Let me show you.

Take you time to imagine a person who has this very scary thought:

I'd be better off _______.

What just came to mind when you saw the line on the screen with no words above it? If you thought "dead" welcome to how this cognitive system of ours works.

In this blog I did NOT say (go back and look) "I'd be better off dead." But between the "meaning" of words and the theme of this message, an old bald guy very few of you have ever met can evoke a word, working with nothing but the pixels on the screen and your likely history.

And there it is. There's a loop.

I'd be better off _______.

When a depressed person sees that loop emerge in her mind the urge to pull can be enormous. Agree with it and do something. Disagree with it and prove it wrong. But either way, take it seriously. Pull, push; Click, click; automatic pilot mode.

It order to be whole and human inside this modern world of chatter that we have created we need to learn how to shift out of automaticity.

What would happen if we respectfully declined the mental demand to pull at our own cognitive loops, or to push them away and show they are wrong.

This is the third alternative. Take a breath, slooooow down, and with curiosity consciously watch the loops form. Keep your hands off them. Do nothing. Stay inside that choice point. Be patient. Gradually another path will open up: Maybe you can move toward what you care about with your thoughts as they are.

Voila. Thoughts are no longer causal. They were a "cause" of behavior only inside a particular social/verbal stream; a system.

The next time the newscast, or your spouse, or the newspaper, or the bad behavior of the driver next to you gives you a couple of cognitive loops to pull, slooooow down. Create a gap amidst the automaticity. There is another alternative. Create a gap and just watch how minds work, and how the idiots behind the microphone program them.

In that gap, a freer life can be built. In that gap, humanity has a chance.

Steven C. Hayes
Professor of Psychology, University of Nevada, and author of
Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life