Astro the Dog – the dog who runs your life
Have you ever been terrified by the prospect of speaking to a pretty girl or guy at a bar? When I was a teenager, I was terrified of awkward silences and speaking to girls. Not just a bit scared or apprehensive, but terrified.
For podcast episodes on Astro The Dog see episodes #011-#013 of the With Joe Wehbe Podcast.
In saying that, I was generally a very confident public speaker
After all, I did this from a young age. But I’ve met other people who are very confident in conversation but their ultimate fear is speaking in front of a crowd.
Curious. In either case, we know logically that the downside is very low. It was not as if a young lady or conversation partner would grow so angry with me at an awkward silence that they would, in rage and fury, strangle or decapitate me on the spot.
My life was not in danger, just as life is not in danger when we speak in public. Yet we get automatic fear sensations to the severity of a life and death situation. It was only years later that I would realise, this was not my fault.
Far from it, this was the panicked reaction of a frightened little dog, simply being manifested through me.
Who Controls Your Brain?
Have you ever seen the 2008 Eddie Murphy movie, Meet Dave? In it a group of tiny aliens are in the control room of what looks like a human body… and the effect is comical because they are trying to navigate acceptable human behaviour.
The Pixar/Disney movie Inside Out (2015) also took this control room analogy for the human brain – it had five personified emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust try to lead their human host, Riley, through life.
I think this is a good metaphor for understanding our subconscious, the portion of our thinking we’re not consciously aware of.
Except there is nothing that resembles a human person sitting in the control room of your unconscious brain.
In fact, it’s a dog.
90% of your brain is run by someone called ‘Astro the Dog’. This is 90% of your wisdom but it’s an iceberg in a frozen lake – you can’t consciously tap into it.
This part of your brain run by Astro has been developing knowledge over the whole course of human history, being educated and refined by natural selection and evolution. Now you may have heard of this before as the lizard brain, the monkey brain or Jonathan Haidt’s elephant and the rider analogy.
But I refer to it as a dog. A dog called Astro.
Whichever your chosen metaphor – the lizard, the monkey, the elephant or our beloved Astro, one thing is always true.
This part of our brain does not speak english… or spanish, arabic, mandarin, or any of the verbal languages of man.
So what language, or languages does Astro speak? How do we communicate with him?
Well let’s go back, because maybe the first person to speak to dogs properly was Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov was using dogs for research and noticed that they would salivate at the sight of the experimenter who brought them food… before they had the food.
They’d come to associate the experimenter with a meal. This was a breakthrough for Pavlov, who would go on to describe the phenomena as classical conditioning.
Conditioning and reinforcement are the languages spoken by Astro, the dog who controls 90% of your brain.
Dogs don’t really understand ‘sit’. We condition them to understand it.
When you teach a dog to ‘sit’ it does not do it the first time. It learns to sit when it hears the noise ‘sit’ and sees you point to the floor, because you train it over time with food or other rewards.
Astro learns, because you once gave him food after he made a sitting motion. When he tried it again, you gave him food again. So, Astro learnt that when you said ‘sit’, food was likely to come.
But Astro doesn’t speak English. That doesn’t mean he speaks English.
Hans the Horse.
Have you heard of der kluge Hans the horse? His master, Wilhelm Van Osten successfully taught him to count – Hans would tap with his hooves the answer, and then do more arithmetic including multiplication. Hans was accurate enough to draw large crowds when they travelled.
This got so much press that a Hans Commission was established
This ‘Hans Commission’, after thorough investigation, confirmed that there was nothing deceptive about Hans performance. Though a psychologist by the name of Oskar Pfungst got Van Osten’s permission to probe deeper. He varied the questions, and eventually found that Hans’ performance diminished when Van Osten stood further away.
So, Van Osten was made to ask questions that Van Osten, himself, didn’t know the answer to… and Hans’ performance went from 89% to 0%. The answer soon became clear, as Pfungst observed the question-askers more directly, finding they had tense facial expressions as Hans got close to the answer, which then relieved as he got to the right number!
It appears Hans was using these facial expressions as a prompt and did not really understand the maths problems.
In the same way, Astro the Dog, who is in the control room of the part of your brain that has been referred to as your subconscious, your ‘lizard brain’, or your ‘elephant’, might appear to understand English very well, but he does not. He only understands conditioning, reinforcement and modelling.
Astro has more intelligence than the rest of us, but he is less refined, less aware of himself and takes longer to train, because it’s harder to communicate with him, on the account he doesn’t speak English.
You can’t instantly train Astro
For conditioning, reinforcement or modelling to work, you need successive and consistent training sessions. You can’t give him a one-off instruction. In that way, Astro the dog is like any young toddler or infant who we are toilet training.
You don’t expect your dog to ‘sit’ the first time you give him or her an instruction. Training Astro takes patience.
You have to walk and feed your dog.
Sometimes Astro wants to eat, wants to go for a walk, wants to chase a ball, or another female dog… and he decides he wants to do this of his own accord, irrespective of what we, ‘his owner’ want to do.
Dogs can’t live all their time inside.
Sometimes we can’t tell what Astro wants.
Sometimes… and this is the important part… sometimes Astro gets very upset because of something he wants. Sometimes he gets very scared about something, and we don’t know where that fear comes from. For example, my friend Nick’s dog, called Jake, is scared of crowds. But we don’t know why. Jake can’t tell us, and neither can Astro.
They just bark, and we can’t understand them.
Don’t give up on Astro.
What we need to do is keep working towards understanding Astro, and get better at training him. We can’t just tell him to stop feeling depressed, to stop giving us fear, to stop giving us limiting beliefs, to get more confident… dogs don’t speak english.
We have to train him, to condition him, to re-condition him. Most of us would not let a canine control 90% of our brain, except, as far as we’re concerned, Astro is running 90% of our brain, and 90% of our intelligence.
We need to give him food and treats when he does something that we want him to do more of. We can’t leave him inside all day while we work – sometimes he’ll get so restless that his barking will distract us, so we’ll need to take him for a walk.
If you mistreat Astro his life will be miserable, therefore, your life will be miserable.
But if you treat him well, you will unlock and master more of your intelligence.
When we are training and in control of the horse, as Van Osten was with Hans the mathematical horse, we can do incredible things. There is so much we can train instinctive animals to do. But first, we need to know what will condition them, what motivates them better.
Your dog doesn’t walk you, you have to walk your dog.
Imagine the crazy image of a dog walking men and women around all day on leashes. This is the way we are born.
Remember, Astro has been shaped by evolution. The goal of evolution was to make your genes as successful as possible – to recreate. That’s all that Astro is pre-wired to do. He is not wired to make you happy.
My suggestion is that you over time reverse the situation, and put the leash on Astro. Move yourself from the passenger seat to the driver seat of your own life. Be in control, though you will never have full control.
If you lock the dog inside, or work him nonstop, he will go crazy and make your life miserable. You have to trick and deceive the dog into a good life, negotiating what you want in between.
How understanding Astro has improved my life
There is no magical turning point where I grew out of my fear of talking to girls and awkward silences. Just as everyone can become a confident public speaker with practice – but there is no clear turning point… we condition Astro to become less afraid over time.
Sometimes you do something, fear something, or can’t bring yourself to do something and you internalise this worry… you think, what’s WRONG with me?
There is nothing wrong with you.
You just have a dog in your mind that was born expecting a tribal, caveman-like society. What we are instead born into is a more complicated culture, society and environment to live in.
This is why we get so much peace from nature – after all, this is where Astro was evolved to live. Our conscious mind, the part we identify with as ‘us’ understands the modern world better than Astro, but Astro has been gathering knowledge for millions of years. He just doesn’t understand the new environment as well, because it evolves faster than he can.
Astro does not get monthly updates like our computers and smartphones do. He will always be lacking behind our new and faster rate of cultural evolution.
Now I write down Astro’s voice – what is the dog saying? And, what am I saying?
We have phobias, react with fear to non-dangerous situations and let Astro get in our way because Astro thinks he’s in a more dangerous environment – the world of the caveman, with saber-tooth tigers and all.
Every irrational fear and problem humanity faces can be traced back to the gap between our biological evolution and our cultural revolution, from where we became more cognitively sophisticated.
Every. Irrational. Fear. And. Problem.
So, write down Astro’s voice, and write down yours. He is very conservative, and thinks it’s better to react with sharp fear for every small thing. But we don’t need this much fear anymore – it’s not often we’re confronted by saber-tooth tigers.
So don’t identify with that feeling, even though you feel it. This process has changed my life and lifted my fear.
For podcast episodes on Astro The Dog see episodes #011-#013 of the With Joe Wehbe Podcast.
Who do you think of when you read this? Would this piece ‘open a door’ for someone you know? Remember to share it with them.
After all, the best way to open a thousand doors for you is to open doors for others.
Though in fairness, my mother often resembles a saber-tooth tiger.