Ep. 80 – The Cognitive Cost of Being (Too Much) in Control

I want to take a moment and reflect on how smart you are – how smart all of us are as humans. While we are certainly capable of doing some very not-smart things, the fact that we even know the difference is an amazing element of evolution. 

The average brain in an adult weighs about three pounds. By comparison, chimpanzees, which are considered to be our closest animal kingdom relatives, their brains are about one-third the size of ours. 

So what do we get for all our extra cerebral bucks? Most of it is in an expanded association cortex-that’s my brain term for today. An association cortex are neural regions that support sophisticated cognitive functions that we have like problem solving.

In addition to having more neurons in the association cortex, brain imaging has also shown when they compare brains between humans and primates that we have a greater number of fibers that connect the brain regions involved in very human-specialized areas such as language, or reasoning, or even social cognition. I found all that nerdy stats on BrainFacts.org. 

But how does this benefit us in our everyday life? Well unlike our mammal counterparts, we can control our thinking and this helps us have advanced reactions and responses in different situations.

One everyday example I see is with my very sweet dog Lucy. Now she takes her job to protect our house quite seriously. So anytime a delivery person comes to the door, she lets them know in all of her barky ways to move on along, thankyouverymuch. 

Even though deliveries come a lot (okay, a lot a lot), Lucy still has the same behavior each time. As humans, we are able to recognize patterns-hey when a truck of this size comes up to this door it might just actually be a square box. We may still have alertness or have a sense for danger, but our extra brain power helps with perspective of those patterns. 

And that’s amazing. And sometimes that is a mental muscle that we can overuse. 

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that with all of our advanced abilities in our head, take care not to react or respond to outcomes that only you have predetermined. 

When our brain is constantly on alert to solve and control circumstances or perceived threats, we spend far more mental energy than is needed. All this overthinking triggers the body’s stress response, leading to the release of extra stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. And that often turns into physical and emotional drains as well as the mental ones. You might see that with increased levels of anxiety, stress, loss of sleep, muscle tension, digestive issues, and even a weakened immune system. 

Yes, we’ve most likely experienced many of those things many times. Going back to the Bottom Line on Top, the focus of this episode is to hone in on whether the cause of these effects are actual events or figments of our over-evolved imaginations. 

One way to tell is to look for where the worries are. The negative impact of overthinking comes into play when we spend tangible energy on what is not within our tangible control. It is natural for us to worry about our environment and those we care about; however, there are two worry signals to look for. 

The first is whether any action on our part will have an impact on the outcome. An example of this is, anxiety by large issues, like climate change, or by exposure to loops of negative information. For a lot of people, that is often the news cycle.

In fact, research done in 2022 at Texas Tech University found that Americans who are constantly checking on news headlines have a significantly greater chance of physical and mental health problems. 

The physical noise of news heightens the alert system and keeps the brain, and sometimes the body, in a suspended anxiety – kinda like my dog waiting for another delivery truck to come by. Dog trainers often suggest having a phrase or a signal for the animal to know that the activity or threat has passed so they can move their attention onto something else. 

For Lucy, it’s when we say all done. She may recheck the window one more time but she will then move on. If you find that you have an area where you are over-diligent- maybe it’s checking your email, or scrolling on social pages, find a signal for you that it is time to move on or use an actual time parameter to move the mind from doing to done. So “I’m only going to check the news for 5 minutes” is an example.

I have an actual timer I use when needing to focus and it’s also great for the times when I want to not focus but I can tend to lose track of time. So it’s boxing in the amount of time you will intentionally invest elsewhere.

The second check is whether your brain is focusing on the entirety of a situation instead of the pieces where you have direct involvement. It’s really normal for the mind to get flooded with the if-this-then-what scenario modeling, especially if there are deadlines, decisions, or even some drama.

Details plus emotions make for a loud mental soundtrack. 

One technique that can help is what was covered in Episode 48, called MINS – which stands for Most Important Next Step. When we’re either worrying about something large or trying to control a large amount of elements, determining what a” Most Important Next Step” is can help you focus on what you can do, and do next.

It also can help focus and calm the brain by turning thoughts into actions. An action, no matter how small, can give your brain a positive boost: hey, look at that, we just changed something! Your brain starts to feel like it’s in control of something or took control of something instead of trying to control everything.

Just make sure that the something you’re looking to do isn’t feeding into the worry thinking all over again. 

If the small steps turn the engine on, then the most important next step shifts it into gear. Steps, no matter how small, keep us moving. And sometimes the best way to move is to stop thinking and start doing. 

There is a cost to both the thinking and the doing. Take a little care to ensure there is some return on what you’re spending. 

Not everything is ours to control, but a little cognitive clarity in our days can hopefully give positive and healthy returns to how we feel at the end of that day.

And for today, I hope you have a very good, positive, and healthy day.

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.