My friend, Chitra Kinikkara was the complaining sort. She lacked for nothing, yet she had a fixed morose expression on her face.
“I think I think too much.” She told me once.
“Come again, I didn’t get that.” I gaped.
“You see, I am always thinking. Unnecessarily, I…think..” She explained. “When I get up I think- I am so tired today. Is it a cold coming on? All I want this week is a bad cold. After that blunder at the office I nearly lost my job. What would have my boss thought? He doesn’t stand incompetence. That was what Lakshmi had told me. Oh, my god! What if I get a fever? Dengue fever is rampant now. It can even turn fatal.” She paused. “This is the way I think.”
“Then I go to the mirror. And I think- good god, look at my hair. Half of it is gone. The wrinkles are a little bit more prominent today. I look like an old hag already. Suresh still looks so young. No wonder he ogles openly at all the young bimbos that are on the roads nowadays.”
I smiled sheepishly. Men ogling at women had nothing to do with the state of their wives. Poor Suresh. I wanted to tell her that. But she was already in her own world, thinking something.
“She is a little crazy.” I thought. “Always thinks nonsense.”
But that made me observe myself and the way my mind worked for a few days. And I realised that I was doing the same thing, most of the time.
There is a name for this, I learned. It is called self obsessed rumination. Is also called ‘overthinking’ by people who don’t like big words. Later studies showed that the thoughts in anybody’s mind wanders 50 to 70 percent of the time. It is a default mode of the brain. When you are not actively paying attention to something, your mind wanders. You may think about your past achievements or failures. You may despair or exult about your present situation. You may worry about the future. You may plan and rethink your goals. You may play out various future scenarios in your head. It may be pessimistic or joyful.
Sonja Lubomyrsky and colleagues studied this phenomenon for about a decade. They have come to the conclusion that some people do it more than others. And most of the time it is pessimistic and negative. When one is ruminating, it feels essential to ‘think this through so that you can get around it’. One may feel that it is absolutely crucial for planning your life or to find a solution. But these scientists say that its effect is predominantly negative. It is an enemy of well-being. The advantages are minimal.
There is one more interesting thing about this phenomenon. It is almost always all about ‘me’. What will happen to me if it turns out this way? I was so embarrassed that day! What did she think about me that day? I could have done it the other way so that she would have a better impression about me. If he fell ill, how would I handle it?
Humans have a huge jutting forehead. That is one important way our faces differ from those of apes. An area of the brain called the pre frontal cortex is responsible for it. In the last 5 million years of human evolution, when the whole brain enlarged by about three times, the pre frontal cortex swelled about six times. It has something essential to do with being human. And it still is not clear exactly what it does.
It is clear that it is the seat of self awareness. It monitors our deepest thoughts and fears. It constantly is in direct touch with the lower limbic system that generates emotions. It does this via funnily shaped neurons called ‘Von Ekonomo’ neurons. The effect of each sensation and decision is weighed and our emotional responses are assessed. It is a self monitoring system. The same system models other people’s minds and reads their reactions.
The medial prefrontal cortex is the area that generates the constant mental chatter of overthinking. It must have had an important evolutionary function, but at the present time, for most people it is destructive.
There are obvious ways to overcome it. You can distract yourself. A hobby or book may do it. It is seen that overthinking leads to binge eating and binge drinking in some. They are doubtless dangerous ways of distracting oneself. You can start working on a solution, if it is a problem that is bugging you. You can take that essential first step.
You can train your mind to focus your attention elsewhere. This is the secret to the many mental practises espoused by gurus of the many major religions.
Meditation, chanting and prayer. That is it.
(for more, buy my book- Health and Happiness without Bullshit from Amazon.in- Jimmy Mathew)