How to Write | Getting Past the Brain’s Opposition

Posted By StudioB on May 23, 2013 | 0 comments


Start Trek human and Borg ships in a standoff.

Learning how to write does not have to be an epic battle against an unbeatable foe.

If you watched the old Star Trek shows, you are probably familiar with the phrase “Resistance is futile,” from a nasty race of hybrid humans/machines called “The Borg.” They were bad dudes. The counter for resistance being futile, as I have learned in teaching and tutoring, is the very human response: “Resistance is natural.”

“Resistance is natural.”

Every time we make a decision we have to contend with a boxing match inside the brain. I’ll show you how it works and how you can bypass the battle to achieve your goals.

I recently tutored one of my favorite kids (they are all my favorites, so you can forgive me now). This young lad, a first grader, does battle with his internal opponent all the time. Unfortunately, that translates to some losses when it comes to school. His grades are indicators of his performance, not his ability. They show how effective he is at engaging and winning the boxing match, not what he knows. I can clearly see this when I give him a simple task to perform.

We sat down for our tutoring session only to find out that he had no homework. I asked him to get a book. He said he didn’t want to get the book. Keep in mind that this child and I get along just fine. He was being oppositional because the was getting counter signals–there was a boxing match going on in his brain. I said get it anyway.

The peak of Mt eEverestHe dragged himself upstairs, complaining that he didn’t want to get a book and he didn’t want to read. It took at least five minutes for him to force himself all the way up to where he kept his books. Imagine the complete dramatic presentation he made. It was as magnificent as a mountaineer steadfastly continuing the final ascent up Mt. Everest after the oxygen had run out.

An interesting change happened upstairs, though, as he found his book. His behavior adjusted for no observable reason. He came rushing down the stairs (five seconds instead of five minutes). He’d picked a book he already knew, which was okay by me. Even if he already knew the story he could still read to me, and that met my purpose.

Whatever occurred in his mind . . .

Whatever occurred in his mind while he was upstairs had miraculously changed his oppositional pattern from resisting reading the book to reading it as fast as he could. He plopped back into his seat and manically began to read aloud as fast as he could. I didn’t mind the race until he started skipping words and relying on memory instead of actually decoding the print. Since the goal of this lesson was to practice decoding groups of words instead of one word at a time, it didn’t do him any good to rely on memory alone.

I put my finger on the page to show him where he had missed a word. He kept on reading, ignoring my first attempt to gain control and stop him. I put my hand down on the book as he finished and attempted to turn the page. He pushed at my hand to get it out of the way. I am not an average-sized guy. My hands are big.

A mosquito biting an arm.His moves reminded me of the time one summer camping trip when friend of mine used his finger to nudge at a mosquito happily feeding on his forearm, just to see what it would do. The mosquito had chutzpa, I’ll give her that. She lifted a leg and pushed back at his finger, even though her leg looked about as menacing as a piece of hair compared to the size of his finger. She was lucky my friend was bored, or she would have ended up as a red splotch on his arm.

So, here is what was going on with my reluctant, then manic reader. He simply wanted to continue reading to get the chore done. That was his brain’s solution to the oppositional pattern. If he didn’t want to do something, he resisted it. If he knew he had to do it, he continued on as quickly as possible in order to get it over with, regardless of the quality of his work or the interruptions by his large and rather pesky tutor. It’s kind of like eating peas or brussel sprouts or liver. Just get it over with and move on to something better.

Just get it over with.

Eventually, using some calming and self-control techniques I had previously to taught him, he slowed down and began to do things my way. I changed the dynamics of our interaction until he was no longer reading like a crazed maniac and was talking to me a a quiet and conspiratorial whisper as we figured out the correct way to read each word. He had switched to a new mode of thought. He had gained control and could work with me.

To understand what caused the three changes from resistant, to manic, to calm, you have to know how our brains set goals. It pays to know that the brain often has counter goals from the ones we actively choose. Perhaps the best explanation I have seen is from a PBS Nova rerun of a show called Hive Mind (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/hive-mind.html) hosted by David Pogue.

Bee communication dance.Part of the show explored the nature of neural activity in the brain as compared to the actions of bees in their communication dance. When bees move from one hive to set up another, they send out scouts to look for an appropriate place while the rest of the bees hang out in one place. When a scout comes back it does a dance, communicating the direction of the potential new hive location.

This is all good and well until another bee comes back and reports a better location in a different direction. How do the bees resolve the dilemma? They carry out a sort of boxing match, with one bee nudging the other to stop it’s dance, and doing a dance of its own to direct the group from the poorer location to the better location. Which ever bee wins the boxing match wins the group.

Pogue, the host of the show, describes how our brains work in the same way. We get oppositional goals, and they battle it out like bees, but their battle takes place in a neural network in the brain, with one set of neurons trying to out signal the other set.

We get oppositional goals, and they battle it out like bees . . .

That is what is going on in my first grade tutee’s mind as he battles between what he wants to do and what I want him to do. His battle is internal, far beyond my physical reach. He has to duke this one out on his own. I can influence him, but I cannot control him. Yes, I have techniques I use to help him win the battle, but luckily you, as readers and writers, have a much easier battle to wage. Even though resistance is natural, you don’t need a large and rather pesky tutor. What you need is a little mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a process where a person takes a step back within his or her mind and watches the battles going on in the brain. A person practicing mindfulness notices thought patterns but lets those patterns come and go without attaching to them. That way, the executive function of the brain, the monitor that allows us to be aware of our mental activity, can look consciously at the patterns of opposition and make a thoughtful choice as to the best path, not a reactive, instinctive, bee-like choice based on which thought duked it out with greater force against the other thoughts.

The process is simple enough.

Sign: QUIET ROOMThe process is simple enough. When you find yourself confused, find a quiet place to sit and watch your thoughts. You can’t have any distractions, so get away from noise and other attention-attractors. Sit quietly. Observe how thoughts come and go like the breeze. Notice the main force of the thoughts, but don’t follow them. Let them rise and fall. Quiet the internal battle not by suppressing it, but by allowing it without owning the thoughts. You didn’t ask for those thoughts, they just showed up. Let them go.

Once you have seen enough from the viewpoint of the observer, make a conscious decision on what you want to do. In this case, you want to write, so pick a topic and begin writing. When the thoughts begin battling again, let them clear out and become the observer yet again. Choose to write . .  and then write. It really is as simple as that.

Give your brain immediate positive and negative feedback based on what you are doing. Overwrite the internal conflict-based pattern of the boxing match within. Tell yourself “now I am writing, good job,” or if you are struggling, tell yourself “now I am struggling, I need to get back to writing.” It’s amazing what happens when you take charge of your brain.

Perhaps people who are more successful at writing, or any other skill, have learned to quickly quiet the oppositional voice within and tenaciously work at their goals. The opposition takes place naturally, but they have an overriding program, a higher point of view with command presence that forces them to take the better path and sit down to write.

That might be why habit is so important in writing. Habit provides such a constancy that it gives the oppostional brain the simple choice of either opposing writing and extending the time spent on task (it sounds like this in the brain: dear God, when will this be over?”, or simply sitting down to write on command and getting the dastardly task out of the way.

We’re always learning at StudioBlearning

 

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