The internet is littered with advice on why you should do the things that scare you. The more extrovert of your social circles will tell you this on a regular basis. And we have all been told the reasons, many times. If we don’t we will stagnate; fear should not be bowed down to; we learn things about ourselves; it wont be as bad as you think it will.
But why should we really do these things? I mean, sometimes it really is as bad as you think it will be. So, what benefit does it have to keep throwing ourselves into frightening situations? And what affect does it have on our brain?
If you have read The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters, you will know that in his simplified version of our minds we have 3 versions of ourselves guiding our thoughts and actions. The Human, The Computer and The Chimp. The Human is our logical side, located in the Frontal Lobe. The Computer is located in our Parietal lobe gives us our stored reactions and ‘autopilot’ mode. And last — but never least — The Chimp, who sits within our limbic system and is responsible for emotional responses.
Don’t these guys just sound like characters in a Tarantino heist movie?
Except they are not, they are controlling our daily actions. And only one has the ability to take us on an impromptu heist. And this is our Chimp.
Yes the Chimp is constantly on the lookout for danger, scanning for anything that might threaten our safety.
Within The Chimp Paradox, Peters notes that when we engage in everyday tasks the computer takes over and the Chimp can sleep. He uses the example of a pianist playing their favourite piece of music. The piece has been played many times, and the pianist can pretty much go into autopilot.
But what if, Peters asks…
“I walk into the room with a group of famous pianists and say to the person ‘We are just going to see how well you play the piano’, and then I lean on the Piano and watch the Pianist intently! This time the Chimp within the Pianist wakes up and panics because it perceives danger… The Chimp is now emotional and unpredictable.”
We have all experienced times where being watched doing something we have done a million times makes us worse at the act itself. It is incredibly frustrating as you know that you are more than capable, but those extra pair of eyes diverts your focus from the task at hand to thinking about that task. This renders us too focused on thinking to act properly.
Now, these are just small examples. But what Peters outlines with this simple example is how change can redirect our thinking outside of the realms of logic or sensible action. We stop working with our parietal or frontal lobes (the Computer and Human), allowing our Chimp to take over as we perceive danger. The dangers don’t have to be that big or life threatening, but our response from the chimp may seem as though they are. This is because the chimp is in control of our fight or flight response, which is designed to keep us alive. It is a hangover from our ancestors more dangerous times. No longer do we fear death to a greater extent. But that looming presentation or first date however, starts to feel oddly threatening.
When this occurs we are likely to be less capable and more emotional, prone to outbursts, anger or sadness. We will often do or say things which we regret, and this is all because we felt threatened by an action or the environment.
When we feel this way, it is often hard to rationalize in the moment, though afterward we may take stock and realize the error of our ways. By then, the damage has most likely been done.
And herein lies the benefit of doing scary stuff…
If we are able to put ourselves into new and frightening positions of our own volition, perhaps we can meet the situation with an awareness that aids our ability to engage our human (logical) mind? In doing so, we can create new neuropathways to incorporate what has been learned. We can be mindful of mistakes (which are SUPER important for growth, by the way!) and understand how we would like to act differently next time.
So, the real reason we should do things that scare us is not to build confidence or further our goals, though they are valid reasons. Really we should do things that scare us because — when we do — we amass more information for our human to learn from. For our computer to store and make sense of. We are able to function better because we are reducing the amount of threats that our Chimp will perceive.
So go to that class, take that trip alone, raise your voice and have that conversation you have been avoiding. Do the scary thing. Because scary things lose their power when you keep facing them head on. And the Chimp inside you will sleep for longer while your Human and Computer carry on in harmony.
In logic and reason, amen.