Bad Sensors (Emotional Brain Surgery)

What do a frustrating day in the airport and a near-death experience in an Air Force fighter jet have to do with each other?

And what, you might ask, do they have to do with you?

If you want to know, stick around.

Welcome to You Start Today, the Dr. Lee Warren weekly podcast to help you change your mind to accomplish real changes in your life.

This is Episode 070: Bad Sensors (Emotional Brain Surgery). You can get the show notes and more on my website at www.wleewarrenmd.com/070

Listen: you can’t change your life until you change your mind. This is where we learn the art of do-it-yourself brain surgery to change your mind. It’s where we learn how to become healthier, feel better, and be happier. It’s where we learn to start today. Let’s go.

Lisa and I were traveling from San Antonio to Casper Wyoming. We got to Denver, and as is almost predictable in the winter time when you’re flying through the Denver airport, we sat for two hours after we were supposed to have taken off for home, and then we FINALLY boarded. After that, we

  • Sat for another hour waiting for de-icing
  • Got de-iced for a half-hour
  • Pulled forward and sat for another hour, only to then
  • Have the captain announce that we had a problem
  • Sensor was saying the elevator wasn’t working
  • Back to the terminal
  • Another hour waiting for update
  • Three gate changes
  • Announced that the elevator was fine, but the sensor was bad
  • Ultimately they couldn’t fix it, so they got us another airplane
  • And hour later we were in the air.
  • Six hours late
  • All because of a bad sensor in the cockpit, telling us the plane was broken, that there was danger, when in fact nothing was wrong at all.

Another true story about airplanes.
I was in the US Air Force’s School of Aerospace Medicine primary course in San Antonio. Part of that school involves a flight in a supersonic jet fighter airplane, the T38.

I was so excited for my flight, but it didn’t turn out quite like I thought it would.

I sat behind the pilot, with my cool helmet and oxygen mask, pretty sure I was as awesome as Tom Hanks in Top Gun. But when we started rolling down the runway, something unexpected happened:

  • Plane jerked to the side
  • The pilot corrected and said in a stern voice over the headphones, “Doc, get your feet off the rudder pedals.”
  • I looked down at my feet. They were no where near the pedals
  • We lifted off, and a few feet into the air the plane jerked sideways again.
  • The pilot again corrected the plane’s attitude in the air, and said a few words over the intercom that I can’t repeat here.
  • This time he YELLED into the mic, “Doc, get your )(&)$(#^&)$&^ feet off the )))&)&^)^%%&## rudder pedals!”
  • I looked again, and again my feet were well clear of the pedals.
  • I said, “Captain, my feet are not touching the pedals at all.”
  • The plain jerked again, this time far more severely. He cussed again and said, “Then we’ve got a big problem.”
  • My heart was racing, and I heard the captain tell his wingman, “Can you drop in behind me and inspect my control surfaces?”
  • I looked to my left and saw the T38 of the wingman drop in behind us.
  • A moment later, he said over the radio, “Looks like your rudder is stuck 45 degrees to the right,”

We ended up having to turn around and land, with the plane intermittently jerking itself sideways and the captain reacting. Each time. He apologized for blaming me, and then went and had a very non-PG conversation with the crew chief, who was responsible for the maintenance of the airplane.

“Okay,” you’re wondering, “What do these two stories have to do with each other, and why should I care?”

Good question.

Here’s the answer:

There was nothing wrong with our airplane in Denver, but a bad sensor ruined our whole trip.
And there was something terribly wrong with my fighter plane in San Antonio, but the sensors never warned the pilot at all, which could have been deadly.

In both cases, bad sensors led us astray, put us off our mission, caused us trouble.

That made me think about you, my friend.

God wired our brains and our bodies with multiple sensors: nerve cells that can detect hot and cold, pain, light touch, vibration, and our position in space. We’ve got specialized sensors to tell us when we’re scared and when we’re feeling attraction, when we’re hungry or thirsty, and when we’re in danger.

And we’ve got a whole system of neurochemicals to tell us how we’re feeling (our emotional state) AND to learn to tie those feelings to perceived realities.

In other words, your sensors are powerfully connected through synapses in your brain to create a whole series of beliefs, automatic thoughts, and strong emotional feelings to tie PAST EXPERIENCE to FUTURE REALITY.

Here’s an example: when you were a kid, you may have accidentally touched your mom’s curling iron when she was doing her hair. It burned your cute little baby hand, and it really hurt. You cried. You got a lot of attention from your mom, and you heard her say a thousand times after that, “Honey, watch out! Don’t touch that! It’s hot, and it’ll burn your hand.”

Now, all these years later, every time you see a curling iron your brain tells you there’s some danger there. You instinctively look to see if it’s plugged in, if the red light’s on, and you touch it quickly to make sure it’s not hot before you grab it to put it away, right?

Why?

Because the sensors in your hand that you burned when you were a kid sent powerful information to your little precious baby brain years ago and built a whole bunch of connections and synapses and neurochemical maps to hard-wire a FEELING (the pain of burning your hand) into a MEMORY (the knowledge that curling irons represent potential danger) and to modify your FUTURE BEHAVIOR (you don’t willy-nilly go around touching curling irons now, do you?).

And so sensors have given you a baseline emotional state that you listen to and inherently believe about curling irons, and in this case they are right.

But what if your father was abusive to you when you were little? What if his mean words and physical abuse and failure to show up at your games and pageants and recitals and his mistreatment of your mom or his drinking made you believe that men were unreliable? That fathers were dangerous instead of safe, that dads were not a place to go for comfort?

What if, years later, you have a hard time emotionally believing that God can be a good father, because of how bad your dad was? What if you have a hard time finding a healthy relationship because you just can’t let yourself trust a man completely?

Just like the curling iron example, here we have a situation in which the sensors in your heart (your emotional heart) that your dad burned when you were a kid sent powerful information to your little precious baby brain years ago and built a whole bunch of connections and synapses and neurochemical maps to hard-wire a FEELING (the pain of your dad’s abuse or negligence or not being there) into a MEMORY (the knowledge that men represent potential danger) and to modify your FUTURE BEHAVIOR (you don’t willy-nilly go around getting involved emotionally with men now, do you? You have to protect yourself, don’t you?).

But if you stop to think about it, you can rationally understand that just because you had a bad father, that does mean that all men are bad, right? If you had a difficult time with ONE relationship, it does not mean automatically that EVERY relationship is going to hurt you, right?

Now I’m not picking on dads here. What if your mom was over-protective or nagging or abusive or neurotic or just too busy to seem to care much about you? What if your sibling was the superstar and made you feel invisible or stupid or less favored?

What if your first girlfriend broke your heart or your business partner stole from you or your husband cheated or your wife makes you feel unattractive?

My point is that human relationships can create synapses and mental patterns of thought that feedback to make our sensors tell us there’s danger or pain or sorrow awaiting us if we engage in the same type of relationship that hurt us in the past.

This episode is NOT about relationships. We talked about that a couple of weeks ago back in <a href=”http://www.wleewarrenmd.com/068″>YST 068</a>, and put the link in the show notes. I’m using relationships as an example of how our sensors can lead us astray sometimes.

Remember the airplane stories I started off with today? In Denver, Lisa and I got stuck for over six hours because sensor told the pilots there was a problem, but the problem actually did not exist at all. And in my T38 check ride, we were actually in grave danger, and the sensor never went off.

So what I’m saying to you today my friend, is that we have to learn to THINK about the information our sensors are giving us, and not just automatically react to them.

Obviously, it’s a good think to automatically refrain from grabbing a curling iron without checking to see if it’s hot (or from touching a snake or jumping in to an investment or a relationship without due diligence) based on past experience that our sensors have wired into our brains.

But today I want to share with you TWO ways in which sensors can hurt us.

First, many people have connected their emotional state to their actual reality.

This is the broken sensor that kept us grounded in Denver when nothing was actually wrong with the airplane.

In psychiatry and in neurosurgery, we often see this as people who begin to define certain things we used to call symptoms as actually being disease in and of themselves. For example, depression and anxiety are often symptoms of an underlying problem with your thyroid or sleep or some other medical or emotional situation in your life. But these days those SYMPTOMS are often reclassified as problems unto themselves, labels, realities in your life. People say, “I have depression.” “I have an anxiety disorder,” or “I’m a chronic pain patient.”

And sometimes they are. But in many cases, the depression or the anxiety or the pain are just sensors. Blinking red lights that indicate something else is wrong. Or even worse, they are blinking red lights that we listen to, even if there’s actually nothing wrong at all. Sometimes they’re just blinking from patterns of behavior we’ve learned from prior experience or general mindset or sometimes nothing more than a serious misunderstanding that MOOD is not the same thing as REALITY.

My psychiatry professor in medical school, the late Dr. Gordon Deckert, used to say something that’s been very helpful to me in my life and in my profession:

“The feeling is not the fact, and the fantasy is not the act.”

This statement becomes more and more useful and true the longer you think about it.

“The feeling is not the fact, and the fantasy is not the act.”

In other words, just because you FEEL scared that your job isn’t secure and you might get fired, and then you’ll go broke and lose your house and end up homeless and on the street and your wife will leave you and you find yourself day dreaming about all that trouble, DOES NOT mean that it’s real or is actually happening.

Maybe you’ve been FEELING like your boss is irritated with you, or there’s been a lot of change at work lately and you’re stressed and worried that you could be on the outs with the new company president. Well, those sensors might be going off because you know you’ve been underperforming or because the old way things were done around your work place aren’t the way things were done where the new president used to work, and you’re pretty sure he’s going to implement those changes here. You’ve got two choices before you: sit around and become more and more afraid that you’re going to lose your job, day dream at your desk about all the terrible things that will happen when he fires you, OR, listen to the sensors and pivot towards taking positive steps to make things better.

Go talk to the boss, and ask good questions about his vision for the company and how you can change your workflow to help him accomplish his ideas and desires. Let the sensors alert you to potential danger, but DO NOT LET SENSORS paralyze you, or sit for six hours in Denver when there’s actually nothing wrong or nothing that can’t be addressed with a change in strategy.

“The feeling is not the fact, and the fantasy is not the act.”

Emotional state is not the same thing as actual reality.

Feeling tired does not mean you can’t accomplish anything today.
Feeling depressed does not actually mean that you can’t be happy.
Feeling anxious does not actually mean that you’re in danger or that everything is falling apart.

The feeling is not the fact.

And just because you spent the entire time in the shower this morning having a fantasy conversation with yourself about the horrible situation you’re going to face when you get to work today and encounter the jerk boss you have to deal with and they’re going to fire you or marginalize you and everything is going to be awful, DOES NOT mean that’s actually going to happen.

The fantasy is not the act.

So, the first bad thing sensors can do to us is to convince us of a reality that IS NOT TRUE. Because the feeling is not the fact, the emotional state is not necessarily tied to reality in any way.

The curling iron is dangerous automatically to your brain because it burned your precious baby hand all those years ago. But in reality, it’s only dangerous if it’s on and hot.

Secondly, some people have never learned to look at their world and make decisions unless their sensors are going off.

This is the plane in San Antonio that was about to crash and the sensors never told us anything was wrong.

When we were flying along and the plane kept jerking back and forth, what if the pilot had just looked at his instrument panel and said, “Well, the sensors say everything’s okay, so we must be fine”?

We could have crashed.

The pilot, fortunately, was wise enough to pay attention to more than just the instruments. He did not let the lack of warning from his sensors lead him into further danger. He called his wingman to look and give him more information.

How about you, my friend? Do you ever ignore obvious signs that there’s trouble brewing in your life just because you aren’t feeling the warning of a sensor, haven’t experienced something similar before or you can’t look past a feeling or hope you have to notice the obvious signs that your plane is flying sideways?

I’ve seen people make HORRIBLE relationship and investing mistakes because they were excited about something so much that they couldn’t pay attention to other people in their lives saying, “I’m concerned about this person,” or the obvious risk involved, or the lack of any data to suggest that the situation was safe.

They couldn’t notice that the world they were in was not actually the same as their instruments, their sensors, suggested. They didn’t call for their wingman, or inspect the airplane for themselves, or even take a minute to bang on the panel and check their sensors to see if they were shorted out.

The pilot in San Antonio, thankfully, paid attention to the whole airplane and not just the sensors.

Sometimes, friend, the sensors don’t tell the whole story.

Look, God gave us emotions for a reason. As I’ve said many times before, emotions are great barometers. They help us determine possibilities, potential danger or opportunity, alert us to situations before we stumble into them. But the feeling is not the fact, and the fantasy is not the act. The sensors are just indicators, blinking red lights on an instrument panel in our brain, and THEY ARE NOT THE REALITY.

And equally important, we can’t ignore that our lives are starting to jerk sideways just because the sensors aren’t blinking red.

If you want to become healthier, feel better, and be happier in your life, you need to learn to pay attention to your sensors, but not to let them determine your reality.

If you want to be happier, you have to change your mind about emotions and feelings, to change how you think about sensors in your life. To do some emotional self-brain surgery.

And you have to start today.

If you have a question or a comment, email me via lee@drleewarren.com

Remember: Life isn’t brain surgery; it’s harder. It’s a war. But even though life is hard, God is faithful. You can have the life you were created to have, but you have to start today. But don’t crash your plane! Listen to your sensors, but don’t forget they aren’t always telling you the whole story, and that sometimes you need a wingman to give you some perspective even if the sensors aren’t blinking red.

Hey, if you like my podcast, you’ll love my newsletter. Every Monday I give you my best prescriptions for a better, healthier, happier life, for free. Check it out and join the community at www.wleewarrenmd.com/newsletter.

Follow me on Instagram and Twitter @drleewarren!

I’m Dr. Lee Warren and you’ve been listening to YST. Be sure to subscribe via iTunes so you automatically get new episodes. I’m trying to get to 30,000 downloads a month, so you subscribing and sharing the show with your friends will really help. Thanks!

You can get the show notes to this episode at www.wleewarrenmd.com/070

I can’t wait to talk to you next week, but you start today.

We’re gonna roll out with our theme music, Podington Bear’s Blue Highway, which you can download for free at freemusicarchive.org

Have a great week my friend, and don’t forget to start today!

Theme Music is Blue Highway by Podington Bear, license courtesy of Creative Commons. http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Podington_Bear/Soul/Blue_Highway

newsletter

Get Dr. Warren’s best prescriptions for a healthier, happier life, delivered to your inbox every Sunday