In this day and age, across much of the developed world, we are bombarded by phenomenal amounts of input; here in the UK we’re exposed to around three and a half thousand marketing messages each day, trying to persuade us to want all kinds of things we didn’t know we needed, plus TV, radio, newspapers, books, and conversation. There are words everywhere.
On the ocean it is very different. There was very little input, and almost none of it is verbal. When there aren’t as many words coming in, you find that you start paying a lot more attention to the voices inside your own head — which is a mixed blessing. If you ever have a desire to get to know your inner demons, I can highly recommend spending over a hundred days confined to a rowboat with no stereo, and for the last twenty-four days, no satellite phone.
It might sound a bit weird talking about voices in your head, but we all have them — it’s not a sign of mental illness. So the first thing to do is to acknowledge their existence, to know that it’s normal to sometimes feel conflicted. It often feels as if there are two different viewpoints fighting for domination inside your skull.
But like all of our internal issues, the best way to handle them is to turn around and shine a bright light on them. When you don’t look squarely at something but only glimpse it out of the corner of your eye, it’s easy to imagine that it’s much bigger and scarier than it actually is. Picture the Wizard of Oz hiding behind his curtain. Once you pull back the curtain you find that your big scary demon is just a silly little man producing special effects deliberately to scare people.
Why the Brain Loves to be Negative
Our brains have an overwhelming preference for focusing on the negative, at the expense of the positive — and that goes for our internal reality as well as what is happening around us.
The reason we’re like this is easy to understand. This negativity bias is an evolutionary survival mechanism — way back when, we didn’t need to think about the ninety-nine percent of things that were good and safe and fine. We needed to focus on the one percent that could go very wrong, like the sabre-toothed tiger that was heading our way. The brain’s perception of reality has not evolved for accuracy — it has evolved for survival. We still have this tendency to focus on the problem — if we get nine positive pieces of feedback and one negative one, it’s the negative one that sticks in our mind. Sounds familiar?
As Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, puts it, those who are “more attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased the probability of passing along their genes. Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.”
I found it got worse when I was under stress. These voices in my head, or the unruly crew of my internal ship, as I thought of them, would react to my stress like they’d had six cans of Red Bull. They would start running around like madmen.
You know the drill by now….!
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Gifts of Solitude. I would be most grateful if you would go to the full article on Medium.com, which will earn me a few cents in these financially challenging times. I believe the algorithm gauges the number of people who read it, and for how many minutes, so please read slowly!