Solving problems of the mind

Evolution has taught us to solve problems by fight or flight. It’s natural then that we apply the same tactics to our psychological problems, but it’s a strategy that doesn’t always work.

Solving problems of the mind
photo credit: ucumari via photopin cc

I listened intently and heard a sound. It was Tina. Or not really Tina. The gleaming eyes of the wolf stared back at me from the darkest corner of the storeroom. God help me, I didn’t know what to do. If we’d been in the village, I would have jumped on the horse, ridden straight to Kazem Khan’s and cried, “Come quick! The wolf is back!”

But we weren’t in the village and Kazem Khan wasn’t here.

So I took a step backwards, as I had seen Kazem Khan do, and called softly to my sister, “Go and get the Holy Book!” She snatched the book off the mantel and handed it to me.

I knelt by the storeroom door, turned to the wild beast, kissed the cover, closed my eyes, opened the book to a page and began to chant.

As I recited the sura, I quietly took one step forward, then another. Reciting all the while, I held out my hand to her and saw the light go out in the wolf’s eyes. I went on until I felt Tina’s hand seek mine in the darkness. “Come, Tina, come!” I whispered. “Let’s go eat.” She struggled to her feet and then walked into the living room.

I look out my window and I see the wolf running through the Dutch polder.

Let it run, let it go, let the wolf lose its way on this new ground, so it will never be able to find its way back to Tina.’

Kader Abdollah. My Father’s Notebook. Translated from Dutch by Susan Massotty.

‘Probably the single biggest evolutionary advantage of human language was the ability to anticipate and solve problems. This has enabled us not only to change the face of the planet, but to travel outside it. The essence of problem-solving is this:

Problem = something we don’t want.
Solution = figure out how to get rid of it, or avoid it.

This approach obviously works well in the material world. A wolf outside your door? Get rid of it. Throw rocks at it, or spears, or shoot it. Snow, rain, hail? Well, you can’t get rid of those things, but you can avoid them, by hiding in a cave, or building a shelter. Dry, arid ground? You can get rid of it, by irrigation and fertilisation, or you can avoid it, by moving to a better location. Problem solving strategies are therefore highly adaptive for us as humans (and indeed, teaching such skills has proven to be effective in the treatment of depression). Given this problem solving approach works well in the outside world, it’s only natural that we would tend to apply it to our interior world; the psychological world of thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, and urges. Unfortunately, all too often when we try to avoid or get rid of unwanted private experiences, we simply create extra suffering for ourselves. For example, virtually every addiction known to mankind begins as an attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression and so on. The addictive behaviour then becomes selfsustaining, because it provides a quick and easy way to get rid of cravings or withdrawal symptoms.

Russell Harris. Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy