The Brilliant Don’t-Get-Eaten Machine (with thanks to my ACT colleagues)*

The Brilliant Don’t-Get-Eaten Machine (with thanks to my ACT colleagues)*

Kimberly Sogge

Saturday August 7, 2010

I love the phrase the “Don’t-Get-Eaten Machine” used by my ACT colleagues and others to describe the mind (Ciarrochi & Bailey, 2008).  The mind is a terribly brilliant don’t-get-eaten machine (Ciarrochi & Bailey, 2008).

As I look out my window into the forest surrounding my home, my mind processes green waving movements in less than 300 milliseconds.  In another 250 to 450 milliseconds my mind comprehends trees waving in the wind and says “forest”. My body is relaxed and I feel pleasure as I look out at the forest.  Total speed of the thought: between 550 and 750 milliseconds (Solso, Maclin, & Maclin, 2005).  Our minds are designed to take flashes of information from our five senses, process that information quickly, and judge what information is most important to survival, all in the space of less than 750 milliseconds (Solso, Maclin, & Maclin, 2005).

The mind has a challenge: in the space of 750 milliseconds (Solso, Maclin, & Maclin, 2005), the mind has to process sensory information, understand, and also has to keep us alive.  As humans we didn’t evolve with big teeth, or claws.  We didn’t grow to be the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex to fend off potential threats.  We grew a big and efficient brain which allows us to not get eaten, by using the cognitive prowess of our speedy mind.  This is a complicated job.  To stay fast and efficient the mind takes a lot of shortcuts (Solso, Maclin, & Maclin, 2005).

Our mind as don’t-get-eaten machine (Ciarrochi & Bailey, 2008) often uses shallow processing of new information, and tries to interpret new experience through the filter of old experience.  Our mind often skips over deep processing of new sensory experience and quickly connects present experience, past similar experiences, and the mind’s past judgments on the safety of past similar experiences to improve speed of processing.  This works to keep us safe.  By using past experience we learn to change our behavior: once we touch a hot stove we don’t tend to touch glowing red hot things again.

To stay speedy and efficient, the mind as don’t-get-eaten machine (Ciarrochi & Bailey, 2008) tries to put new information into simple categories; the mind often does a quick superficial scan and places a single new experience into an category of (pretty loosely) related experiences with their associated judgments and stories.  To keep us alive the mind tends to expand its connections between categories.  This is why a bad experience with one fruit, for example can expand to all fruits, or all fresh food, and so on.

To stay speedy and efficient, the mind as don’t-get-eaten-machine (Ciarrochi & Bailey, 2008) often stores its information in the form of language or stories. By using language to connect our experience we can prepare ourselves to stay alive (by repeating stories to ourselves), and also help others to stay alive (by communicating our stories).  This is how we can greet a stranger in a friendly manner, but then experience fear if someone whispered to us “that person is violent” (for another example see the dog story in Ciarrochi & Bailey, 2008).

The mind is brilliant to cut down processing time by using shallow processing based on past experience, simple expanding categories, and language (Solso, Maclin, & Maclin, 2005).  Using old associations from our past, over-categorizing new experiences based on minimal detail, and repeating stories to ourselves we can effectively stay alive.  The mind is a great don’t-get-eaten machine (Ciarrochi & Bailey, 2008)!  Here is the rub: the mind trades accuracy off for efficiency.

In our contemporary age, the mind is still operating as if we are going to be eaten by a tiger at any moment.  The judgments our minds make about SAFE or NOT SAFE, and the stories our minds tell us about our experience, and the way our minds categorize new information from our senses, often become disconnected from facts.  In our contemporary age, instead of dealing with each new experience based on the facts from our senses, our mind as don’t-get-eaten machine (Ciarrochi & Bailey, 2008) continues to use shallow processing, simple expanding categories, and repetitive stories.  Because our mind continues to work as a don’t-get-eaten machine (Ciarrochi & Bailey, 2008), our responses are often reactive, based on an original only loosely-related experience, and our stories persist even though they may no longer apply to our new present moment experiences (Solso, Maclin, & Maclin, 2005).

Can you see how the mind as a brilliant don’t-get-eaten machine (Ciarrochi & Bailey, 2008) might keep us reactive, inaccurate, and inefficient in how we think and respond?  Can you see how our mind as don’t-get-eaten machine (Ciarrochi & Bailey, 2008) might lead to present-day suffering (on top of the pain that reality will naturally give us!) (CiarrochI & Baily, 2008; Harris, 2008; Strohsal & Robinson, 2008; Walser & Westrup, 2009)  Keep watching, and we will continue our conversation about whether we should choose mind speed or mind accuracy, and about how our mind’s stories change everything.

Ciarrochi, J. & Bailey, A. (2008).  A CBT practitioner’s guide to ACT.  Oakland: New Harbinger.

Harris, R. (2008).  The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living.  Boston: Trumpeter.

Solso, R. L., Maclin, M. K., & Maclin, O. H. (2005). Cognitive psychology (7 ed.).
Toronto:  Allyn & Bacon.

Strohsal, K & Robinson, P. (2008).  The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for depression: Using acceptance and commitment therapy to move through depression and create a life worth living.  Oakland: New Harbinger.

Walser, R., & Westrup, D. (2009).  The mindful couple. Oakland: New Harbinger

*The statements in this blog are common ACT and cognitive psychology ideas and concepts.  To the best of this writer’s ability I attempt to give full value to the contributions of others and to credit colleagues for their ideas and work.  However, as I am a practitioner, I use these ideas on a daily basis and have integrated many ACT ideas into my thinking; I  have developed  variations and examples which are based on my own practices, teaching of cognitive psychology, and which are drawn from personal experience.  My variations on the core ACT ideas, my perspective on cognitive psychology concepts, and my interpretations of how ideas should be applied cannot be the responsibility of anyone else other than myself.  I refer you to a wonderful set of ACT publications put out by

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