There's a logic puzzle, well-known to those of us who never dated in high school, about an island that's inhabited by two tribes – the Liars and the Truthtellers. As you might guess, the Liars always lie, and the Truthtellers always tell the truth.
It's impossible to tell them apart by looks.
You're on this island, at a fork in the road, lost and confused, and you want to know which road takes you to the village. You're especially keen to know this because the other road leads to a dangerous dragon. You see a native of the island walking by, and get to ask one question. But you don't know which tribe they're from. What one question can you ask to find your way to the village?
Let's say you ask the obvious question: “Which path goes to the village?”
And let's say the correct answer is “the left one.”
If the person you ask is a Truthteller, they'll say, “the left one.”
And if they're a Liar, they'll say, “the right one.”
But since you don't know whether you're getting the truth or a lie, you're no wiser after asking that question.
What if I changed the rules for you and allowed you more than one question? What happens if you inquire which tribe they belong to before asking for directions?
Both will answer, “I am a Truthteller.”
Again, no help.
So is there a single question that can tell you how to get to the village?
Yes there is!
And before I share it with you (in case you were the sort of person who dated in high school and didn't spend Saturday nights with books like Martin Gardner's Perplexing Puzzles and Tantalizing Teasers), let's talk about why it's relevant to our health.
The Questions We Keep Asking Ourselves
Many of us have spent decades beating ourselves up for the knowing/doing gap: the difference between our intentions and our actions.
When faced with evidence that we aren't behaving in ways that will help us lose weight, get fit, reverse chronic conditions, and make us happy, we're perplexed. Why am I self-sabotaging? What's wrong with me?
And the brain is a very eager bloodhound; give it a sock to smell, and it will spend the rest of time looking for its owner until it finds a match.
If the sock you give it is the question, “What's wrong with me?”, then your brain will dutifully bring you back answers. Sometimes they sound like these:
- You are lazy.
- You are undisciplined.
- You don't want it bad enough.
- You have a sweet tooth.
- You had a traumatic childhood.
- You're not a morning person.
- The world is out to get you.
Your Brain is Tyler Durden
The problem is, your brain is what's known in literary criticism as an “unreliable narrator.” Not because it's necessarily trying to deceive you, but because it's compelled to give you the best answer it can even though it doesn't have a freaking clue.
Unreliable narrators are dangerous only when we don't realize that they're unreliable. And our own brains are the most notorious unreliable narrators of all. As rock star physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Or as Emo Philips puts it, “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
Your brain has no idea why you're not following through on your good intentions. So it looks at the evidence and, not to put too fine a point on it, makes shit up.
We learned about the brain's willingness to make shit up from what are known as “split-brain experiments.”
One surgical treatment for severe epilepsy involves severing the corpus callosum; the bunch of cables that connect the right and left hemispheres of our brains. Scientists studying patients who had undergone this procedure starting noticing something strange; when they saw things through their left eye only, they could perceive but not verbalize them. In other words, if you showed a split-brain patient a photograph of a snowy field that they could see only with their left eye, they wouldn't be able to articulate that they had perceived it.
In one such experiment, patients saw a snowy field in their left field of vision, and a chicken in their right. Then they were shown various pictures and asked to choose the picture most closely associated with what they had seen.
Two of the choices were an egg and a shovel. The patients picked the shovel but not the egg.
And – here's where it gets fascinating – when asked why they picked the shovel, none of them mentioned the snowy field.
Instead, they said things like, “It's for cleaning out the chicken coop.”
Notice what they didn't say: “I have no idea.”
Which was the truth.
The verbal part of their brain was completely ignorant to the existence of the chicken. And so faced with a conundrum – “Why did I pick a shovel to associate with a chicken?” – they made up the most plausible answer they could believe.
And that's exactly what all of us do when faced with the conundrum, “Why am I self-sabotaging?”
Why Are You Self-Sabotaging?
Let's get one thing out of the way: you aren't lazy, undisciplined, or irretrievably broken or genetically doomed.
Those concepts are the brain's explanations for a reality that it can't articulate because it doesn't have access to that level of perception.
You and I and everyone have a survival drive that operates outside of conscious awareness.
And it's a good thing that this circuitry isn't available to our conscious awareness or control. Imagine if your ancestors were faced with an existential threat – a saber-toothed tiger, perhaps – and had the ability to ponder, pontificate, and perseverate instead of jumping up and running like hell.
The instantaneous and involuntary nature of the survival drive in response to perceived threat is a feature, not a bug.
In the context in which we evolved, any creature that took too long to do something in response to looming danger or lethal threat didn't survive to reproduce. So we are the product of millions of years of our ancestors NOT becoming evolutionary dead ends, and our inheritance is a survival system that takes over whenever our nervous system says, “Uh oh.”
Your Nervous Nervous System
The problem is, your nervous system isn't cut out to evaluate threat in our modern world. We're terrified of things that will almost certainly never happen to us (terrorist attacks, airplane crashes, and sharknados), and flippant about likely calamities (car crashes, heart attacks, and climate destabilization).
And we interpret emotional unpleasantness as an existential threat.
In other words, that ambiguously negative email from your boss triggers the same Flight or Fight or Fold reflex as ye olde saber-tooth tiger from back in the day. Your alarm clock ringing in the morning elicits an identical cortisol rush as a predator's growl. And even a self-denigrating thought tells your nervous system that there's trouble brewing.
An attack is an attack is an attack, whether it's verbal or physical, internally or externally generated. And under attack, the ancient survival drive takes the wheel and kicks the conscious brain into the trunk.
Your Survival Drive Has Become an Asshole
As we've seen, your survival drive has been a good friend to our species for a long time. But in our modern environment, it does way more harm than good.
One of its rules is, “See food, eat food.”
We evolved in an environment of food insecurity. You never knew when the pests would hit the orchard, or the rains wouldn't come, or the animals would migrate, or the hail would fall. So those of us whose internal programming including the instruction, “Load up on calories when they're available so you have a buffer against the inevitable famine that's coming,” lived to pass on our genes.
And the sweeter and fattier the food, the louder this rule reverberated in our brains.
Now, of course, with candy bars for sale at the checkout lane at Home Depot and Doordash delivering Stuffed Crust 3-cheese pizzas from a voice-activated app, that rule has turned us into compulsive consumers of excess calories.
Another survival drive rule is, “Rest whenever you can.”
After all, you never knew when you've have to run for your life, or defend your family, or rebuild a collapsed shelter, or dig for roots, or chase some prey.
Now, in a world where for many of us the necessity of physical activity has largely been replaced by fossil fuels and the poorly compensated labor of others, that same directive to conserve energy looks like laziness, and contributes to all of our health and weight problems.
Overriding the Survival Drive
The survival drive doesn't know any better.
It's not equipped to evaluate the nature of threat, and distinguish between physical danger and mental discomfort.
It's not capable of realizing that you will not starve tomorrow if you don't polish off the last two sleeves of Oreos tonight.
It can't know that a voluntary run this morning won't put you in danger of being eaten by an alligator later.
It just does what it does, like it's done for millions of years.
And that's not necessarily a problem.
If your conscious mind is in control, it can reject the urges of the survival drive. If you aren't so stressed out that the system automatically defaults to surivival mode, you have agency here.
Your rational brain, the one that plans and negotiates and assesses and weighs options, can override those impulses.
Except for one thing: the survival drive has a fiendish trick up its sleeve: It know how to pretend to be the rational brain.
The Liar Inside You
Your survival drive will try to get you to eat crap and skip physical activity by any means necessary. And that generally includes posing as your rational brain.
For example, have you ever felt the urge to eat something that you know you shouldn't eat? Do you hear your survival drive saying, “Ugh, ugh, calories now. Might starve tomorrow.”? I bet not. Instead, it sounds more like, “Hey, you really deserve this treat. Anyway, just one isn't going to hurt. And you can always exercise twice as long tomorrow to burn it off.”
In other words, your survival drive is lying its ass off by mimicking rational thought.
And until you can tell that it's the liar here, you're probably going to buy it.
That's why you think you're lazy, or unmotivated, or helpless against a genetic sweet tooth. Because the survival drive wants you to think that you don't stand a chance. That you're broken in some way, and should just give up and let the survival drive eat and sleep its way to safety.
So it's crucial to figure out the question that will allow you to figure out if you're listening to a Liar or a Truthteller inside you.
The Actual Liar Puzzle Solution
Here's the answer to the Liar Puzzle we started with: “If I asked a member of the tribe you don't belong to which path goes to the village, what would they say?”
And then take the other path.
Because the Truthteller will say, truthfully, that the Liar would send you down the wrong path.
And the Liar will say, untruthfully, that the Truthteller would send you down the wrong path.
The Survival Drive Liar Puzzle Solution
When you're on the verge of bingeing, or skipping a workout, you need a foolproof question to tear the rational mask off the lying survival drive.
If you ask, “Should I eat this?”, your survival drive will give you very rational-sounding reasons to do it.
If you ask, “Should I sleep in this morning instead of working out,” your survival drive will sound very responsible as it explains why you need to listen to your body.
So what question can you ask to uncover the survival drive?
I got the answer from one of my coaching clients, who has been using it when she finds herself in tempting situations:
“How much do you care about your integrity?”
You see, only the higher consciousness can deal with a concept like integrity.
Your survival drive doesn't care about stuff like that. About self-esteem. About principles and character. About pride.
It only wants to be comfortable now. To get high now. To avoid discomfort now.
But your higher consciousness gets awakened by a question about integrity. When you ask that question, you interrupt the survival drive's grip on the steering wheel, and allow the rational brain to clamber out of the trunk and take its rightful place in the driver's seat.
And now you can step on the accelerator and steer toward the destination, toward the destiny, of your choosing.
To the village of health and happiness and self-esteem.
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