Your Brain Is Not for Thinking
“Your brain’s most important job isn’t thinking; it’s running the systems of your body to keep you alive and well. According to recent findings in neuroscience, even when your brain does produce conscious thoughts and feelings, they are more in service to the needs of managing your body than you realize.
…Your brain runs your body using something like a budget. A financial budget tracks money as it’s earned and spent. The budget for your body tracks resources like water, salt and glucose as you gain and lose them. Each action that spends resources, such as standing up, running, and learning, is like a withdrawal from your account. Actions that replenish your resources, such as eating and sleeping, are like deposits.
The scientific name for body budgeting is allostasis. It means automatically predicting and preparing to meet the body’s needs before they arise. Consider what happens when you’re thirsty and drink a glass of water. The water takes about 20 minutes to reach your bloodstream, but you feel less thirsty within mere seconds. What relieves your thirst so quickly? Your brain does. It has learned from past experience that water is a deposit to your body budget that will hydrate you, so your brain quenches your thirst long before the water has any direct effect on your blood.
This budgetary account of how the brain works may seem plausible when it comes to your bodily functions. It may seem less natural to view your mental life as a series of deposits and withdrawals. But your own experience is rarely a guide to your brain’s inner workings. Every thought you have, every feeling of happiness or anger or awe you experience, every kindness you extend and every insult you bear or sling is part of your brain’s calculations as it anticipates and budgets your metabolic needs.
This view of the brain has many implications for understanding human beings. So often, for example, we conceive of ourselves in mental terms, separate from the physical. A bad stomach ache that follows an indulgent meal may send us to the gastroenterologist, but if we experience that same ache during a messy divorce, we may head to a psychotherapist instead. At the gastroenterologist’s office, we experience our discomfort as an underlying physical problem; at the therapist’s office, we experience the same discomfort as anxiety — a psychological disturbance, physically manifested.
In body-budgeting terms, however, this distinction between mental and physical is not meaningful. Anxiety does not cause stomach aches; rather, feelings of anxiety and stomach aches are both ways that human brains make sense of physical discomfort. There is no such thing as a purely mental cause, because every mental experience has roots in the physical budgeting of your body. This is one reason physical actions like taking a deep breath, or getting more sleep, can be surprisingly helpful in addressing problems we traditionally view as psychological.
We’re all living in challenging times, and we’re all at high risk for disrupted body budgets. If you feel weary from the pandemic and you’re battling a lack of motivation, consider your situation from a body-budgeting perspective. Your burden may feel lighter if you understand your discomfort as something physical. When an unpleasant thought pops into your head, like “I can’t take this craziness anymore,” ask yourself body-budgeting questions. “Did I get enough sleep last night? Am I dehydrated? Should I take a walk? Call a friend? Because I could use a deposit or two in my body budget.””