Monkey Brains and Multiple Selves

Monday, April 23, 2012
By guest

A monkey wearing glasses

[This is a guest post by Lee Nathan, pictured above. Lee is a freelance web developer / designer who has spent the last four years researching lifehacking and personal development.]

Our bodies and minds have evolved to enjoy life right here and now because it could be gone tomorrow. We crave fatty foods because they gave us extra padding in case we couldn’t eat next week. We crave sweets because they gave us energy to keep ourselves alive. Then came all the conveniences of the modern world. Sweets are no longer just healthy fruits but an endless bounty of candy, cakes, and ice cream. Fatty foods are no longer hard to obtain. They’re right there at the local McDonald’s. But our bodies and the primitive parts of our minds keep telling us that we need as much of these foods as we can possibly take in. So we tend to over eat, without any of the physical work it used to take to acquire food. The problem — for the lucky first-world readers of this blog — is how not to eat to excess, and how to induce ourselves to get physical exercise that is no longer a natural part of daily life.

Traditionally, we never had to worry about things like retirement and cancer. We were lucky if we lived to be 40. But now, modern medicine and a shift to a very technical society means we need to think about our futures and how to get there. You can think of yourself as actually two selves. Your primitive monkey self wants what it needs to survive and it wants it right now. It doesn’t care about tomorrow because there may not be one. Your other self is your future self. The concept of our future selves is a very abstract concept to our primitive monkey brains. This future self sits back and reflects on all the things that have happened in your life. Often it looks back with regret because your monkey self didn’t toe the line and ensure the happiness of your future self. Your monkey self may be overweight, out of shape, and not accomplishing anything. Your future self is healthy, fit, and successful. At least that’s how your current self sees it. But often your current self is unable to do the things necessary to create that future self. It’s simply not how your still-primitive monkey brain is wired. If you find the thought of your primitive mind insulting, think about life just 200 years ago. It wasn’t much different than 2000 years ago, with the exception of agriculture. People still had to do physical work to stay alive. People didn’t have modern conveniences like Starbucks and McDonald’s. If you wanted food, you worked for it. If your clothing fell into disrepair, you fixed it. If you needed to go somewhere, you walked or rode a horse. We haven’t evolved much since the times of our great great grandparents. But we are living much longer and have to be much more thoughtful.

“Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” — Mark Twain

Over the years I have made many promises to myself. I’ve promised myself I’d eat better, drink less beer, and get more exercise. I’ve had mixed results with all of them. As my future self comes to be, I find that ultimately nothing has changed. Then I noticed an interesting disparity. A few years ago I got a dog. If my dog is neglected, he will suffer or die. When I got him, I promised him I would always take care of him and think of his needs before anything else. I have a serious obligation to my pet and he is completely dependent on me upholding that obligation. Since I got my dog, he’s had healthy meals every day. He’s gotten exercise and play time twice a day and has been taken somewhere special at least once a week. I haven’t been nearly so thoughtful or loving with myself. The difference is that I have a contract with my dog. I don’t have a contract with my future self. The problem is that my future self isn’t a present entity. If I forget to feed my dog his tummy starts growling. If I neglect to exercise him he can’t manage his energy levels. However if I overfeed my self or fail to exercise my self, my future self suffers in silence. It will be a miserable creature, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I’m risking an early death.

We need to treat our future selves better. We need to create contracts with our future selves so that we can both be happy. One way of doing this is by setting goals. A goal is a way of saying, this is who I want my future self to be. The problem is that usually we leave it up to our future selves to figure out how to do it. We procrastinate. The future self is an abstract concept that the monkey self doesn’t understand or care about. The modern human, however, has to be more evolved and overcome the akrasia created by our monkey selves.

There are a number of tools out there to help us do better by our future selves. Many of them fall into the category of lifehacking. Some of my personal favorites are GTD and Benjamin Franklin’s spreadsheet for changing habits. A great tool for Franklin’s habit system can be found at Joe’s Goals.

But there are some hugely important things missing from these tools:

  • Accountability, accountability, accountability.
  • The ability to quantify results.
  • The ability to create and maintain a contract with your future self.

I’ve found all of these things in Beeminder.

“If you drop the ball, it’s no longer your future self who pays the price, it’s you.”

Accountability is massive. Your future self is, after all, in the future. So right now there’s just you and your primitive monkey brain. There’s nobody looking over your shoulder, waiting to throw a banana at you if you smoke another cigarette or eat another Twinkie. Which is why having a financial incentive with Beeminder is so important. With Beeminder, if you choose to stake a financial obligation on your goal, you’re being held accountable every day. Failure is no longer the problem of your future self. It’s your problem every day. If you drop the ball, it’s no longer your future self who pays the price, it’s you. You’re being held accountable.

The ability to quantify results is one that I hadn’t even considered before Beeminder. But it’s vastly important. It’s easy enough to say I’m overweight or I’m not. But what about all those months and years in between being successful and not successful where there are often intangible degrees? It’s so easy to get lost and say I’m a failure because I haven’t succeeded yet. Hence the yellow brick road. Every day that you stay on it (or on the good side of it) you can say you are successful even if your goal has not yet been fully realized.

And then there’s the contract. The contract is in the graph itself. Your monkey self and your future self can both look at it and tell whether you’ve been loyal to the program. Adding a financial incentive seals the deal. If you fail, both your current and your future self lose out. But if you stay on your yellow brick road, both selves win.

Lee Nathan

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  • Gandalf Saxe

    Excellent post Lee Nathan. It’s become a pleasure to follow this blog; it seems that each time someone have a fresh news perspective on the same old (but most important) problems. Beeminder’s Blog and Zen Habits have become two of my most treasured blog subscriptions :-)

  • Lee Nathan

    Thanks Gandalf. I’m glad you got something out of it.