Serenity in an Age of Anxiety

brainDon’t Believe Everything You Think   (Part 1 of 3)

In 1944, as World War II raged and millions of people did not have enough to eat, researchers at the University of Minnesota began a study on the impact of starvation.  Conscientious objectors volunteered to live in a dorm for a year and eat only what they were served. As the participants got thinner and thinner, their thoughts became increasingly focused on food.  They cut recipes out of magazines and talked about meals they wanted to eat (you wrote ‘not eat’- did you mean would eat? If so, I’d say ‘wanted to eat’).  By the end of the experiment their thoughts were completely hijacked by what they did not have.[1]


Since then, research has revealed the unexpected ways scarcity changes behavior. Not only do unmet needs occupy our thoughts, but they usurp the ability to make good decisions.  Long-term plans and goals fly out the window. Warning signs are missed.  The brain loses some of its capacity for rational thought.


Judge Less, Forgive More


As a society, we are unforgiving when people get stuck in scarcity situations. Why doesn’t that person in debt get a better job or follow a budget?  Didn’t she know that borrowing    money at high interest would make things worse? It is easy when you have enough to imagine what someone without should do. Your brain has not been commandeered by lack. What you may not see clearly are the areas where scarcity has taken over your brain. Perhaps it is a paucity of time, inadequate purpose or a shortage of friends.


Loneliness and exhaustion are also manifestations of scarcity. They can impair your judgement and leave you behaving in ways that perpetuate the feeling of emptiness. A desperate need for companionship may cause you to behave in ways that send others running or maybe you will self-medicate tiredness with drugs that cause more problems.


Whether our poverty is real (we don’t have friends or money) or imagined (we don’t have enough friends or money compared to others), the brain hijack is the same. We want to be empathetic to others in the same situation and with ourselves. The next time you think, why doesn’t Jane just dump that loser? Or closer to home, why can’t I make more friends? Consider how scarcity may be at play.





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