Sometimes our mind splits into cross purposes. The results get pretty wacky…
Have you ever felt the drive to do something totally reckless?
Like, have you ever found yourself standing on a cliff edge or at the top of a tall building, hearing a voice inside you say, “Go on, jump.” Do you find yourself fantasising about what it would feel like to step out into air, feel the wind on your skin, the split seconds just before the impact splits your skull?
And I’m not talking about suicidal ideation here. That’s a completely different thing.
I’m talking about something that’s completely location-dependent. The thought has possibly never crossed your mind before, but then once you’re at the cliff’s edge, it’s right there – a seductive, reckless and almost joyful urge.
You’re not alone. It’s apparently very common.
And the context isn’t always so dramatic. It could be about saying something stupid, keeping a secret, throwing tea on someone… anything you know you really shouldn’t do.
There was an episode of the old ‘Spin City’ where the mayor is going to meet the Governor. He says to Michael J Fox’s character,
“But what if I punch her in the face?”
“What? Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know! I say to myself, ‘don’t punch her in the face’, but then I just start obsessing on it. ‘Don’t punch her in the face. Don’t punch her in the face. I go crazy with it.”
(He ends up punching her in the face.)
Or I had a friend, a keen footballer, who had a new-born baby. He noticed one day that wrapped up in its swaddle, the baby felt just like a football. So he imagined drop-kicking it through the uprights. Wouldn’t that be silly?
It was a joke at first, but he surprised himself with how vivid the image was – how clearly he felt it in his own body.
He says to himself, “Oh my god, don’t do that.” But then every time he picks the baby up, the thought comes, the feeling comes. He feels horrified.
He stops trusting himself.
And this is another common feature of this phenomenon. You feel split in two – in your conscious mind you know it would be terrible thing to do to jump over the cliff or punch the mayor in the face. But, the feeling seems to come from another part of you – a part of you that doesn’t share your outlook on right and wrong, cause and effect.
(Who’s got their hands on the steering wheel here?)
It can be a strange and terrifying experience. But as I was saying, it’s actually very common.
In psychology the phenomenon is called ‘The imp of the perverse.’
The reason it has such a flamboyant title and isn’t called something like ‘regulatory impairment syndrome’ is that it was first articulated in the west by the poet Edgar Allan Poe in one of his short stories: The Imp of the Perverse.
In this piece, someone concocts a perfect murder, and inherits the victim’s estate. At first the murderer is incredibly pleased with himself, and proud to have come up with such a fool-proof scheme.
But in time, the thought of the murder starts to haunt him. His first response is to come up with an affirmation: “I am safe”, and he repeats this anytime the memory of the murder occurs to him.
For a long while this works, until one day, for some reason, he adds to it: “I am safe, if I be not fool enough to make an open confession.”
At that point, the thought worm enters his mind, “Don’t make a full confession, don’t make a full confession.”
It eventually drives him mad, until finally he does indeed make a full confession, and is hanged.
Poe says that this is an impulse that every human has and calls it the imp of the perverse – a demon egging you to do exactly the wrong thing.
(Poe was such a ray of sunshine wasn’t he?)
But we now know that this is not a case of demonic possession – it’s just one of the quirks of having a complex and multi-layered mind.
The key to understanding it is remembering that our mind has conscious and automatic processes.
So you walk into a restaurant you’ve never been in and have to choose something to eat off the menu. You weigh up the different options and make a choice. That’s a conscious process.
Everything else in life – like the remaining 95% – is done automatically, based on instinct, learnt behaviours, habit and training. It’s done without ‘thinking’.
Like, say, the habit of having a cigarette after sex. You know how it goes. You finish a beautiful round of lovemaking, then you ask if anyone there has a cigarette, decide if you want menthol or regular, ask the quartet to tone it down a bit so you can ask if anyone has a lighter.
You know how it goes. It’s all just automatic. There’s no thinking involved.
And this is how we work – our automatic systems on autopilot, and our conscious minds getting involved sometimes, but only when they have to.
Most of the time, the two work hand in glove and it all seems to work as one happy, cohesive whole.
Sometimes though, and actually reasonably often, the automatic and conscious processes come into cross-purposes – in to a sort of conflict. The imp of the perverse is one of those situations.
The way I’ve heard it described is that the automatic processes are responsible for ‘calibration’.
So take driving a car. Unless you’re 16, driving the car has probably become automatic. You’re not consciously thinking about gears, you’re not consciously steering. You’re thinking about dinner and singing along to the radio.
It feels like it’s easy because there’s no effort involved, but driving a car is still an incredibly complex task.
And what the automatic mind is doing in the background is constantly checking itself against its objectives.
So maybe the objective is ‘stay between the white lines’. The automatic mind is constantly measuring your performance against this goal: “Am I between the white lines? Am I between the white lines?” and then adjusting your driving accordingly.
It is constantly calibrating.
Most of the time this is a very efficient division of labour. It seems to get a bit weird though when you set it a ‘negative’ goal. Do NOT jump over the cliff. Do NOT punch the mayor. Do NOT kick the baby.
When the automatic mind gets a goal like this, the calibration questions change. Am I not jumping over the cliff? Am I not falling through the air? Is the wind not rushing on my skin?”
By framing the goal in the negative, you become fixated on the exact thing you are trying to avoid.
And what the conscious mind then gets to witness is the automatic mind testing itself against the felt experience of the goal.
And so you watch it imagine (in a felt and very vivid way) stepping over the edge, falling, hitting the ground.
To know whether it is NOT doing these things, it needs to conjure them up in a very vivid and visceral way.
And you then find yourself surprised that the thoughts don’t make you feel more frightened. But that’s because the automatic mind is doing it in a value neutral way. It’s not saying that falling is good or bad. It’s just imagining the outcome so it can calibrate its performance against it.
And because you are almost watching someone else’s dream, it’s surprisingly exhilarating.
But you don’t know all that, so you think that the automatic mind is an imp who wants you to kick babies.
But as I said, perfectly natural and very common.
Now that we’re all on the same page with that, I think this has a few interesting implications for the journey of success and self-mastery.
The first is what it says about ‘will’.
In many we ways we can understand will as the conscious mind’s attempts to control the impulses of the automatic mind.
Your habits are urging you to have a cigarette, but consciously you know you shouldn’t. You give the lighter back to the triplets and go out and get some water. You exercise your will power.
However, ‘will’ is the mastery of the 5% over the 95%. (I’m making those numbers up, but you get the point.)
Since your automatic mind is responsible for so much more than your conscious mind (breathing, driving, chewing, most of shopping etc.) it is naturally allocated much more power.
So the conscious mind gets tired quickly. You are dragging a T-Rex around on a chain. Willpower is a limited resource.
The other implication here is that it helps us understand the power of positive versus negative affirmations and goals.
So if you say to yourself, “I will be rich”, then 100% of you becomes focused on the task.
If, however, you say, “I will not be poor”, then 5% of you is focused on making money, while the other 95% of you starts fantasising about what it would be like to be poor.
“Am I wearing rags? Am I eating dog-food? Am I performing show-tunes in a cast with other 19th Century English orphans?”
Your focus becomes split, but not in an even way. In a massively unbalanced way. Like 95% of you has their eye completely off the ball!
If you set yourself negative goals, if you work with negative affirmations, how can you possibly hope to succeed?
There is great power in the body and in the automatic mind. Self-mastery involves making sure that the conscious and the automatic minds are in alignment.
Then the magic happens.
Becoming fully conscious – aware of our conscious mind – that’s only the first step. We have to become aware of our automatic mind as well.
Then we are on the road to self-mastery.