Monkey Brain is Bad for His Own Health

Haunted House

Monkey Brain fears things which go bump in the night.

“Only the good die young.”
–Billy Joel

I don’t know anyone who is particularly good at contemplating his own mortality. We fear the unknown, and even if we have a strong religious faith, it is just that – faith.

When we face something that we really don’t want to think about or deal with, we tend to procrastinate on it. I often used to joke (ok…I still do) that procrastination is the key to tomorrow. Research by Case Western Reserve University’s Roy Baumeister and Dartmouth’s Todd Heatherton show that we often are unable to regulate our behavior when we’re faced with stressful situations. Those situations often create what is called a “psychic cost,” taxing our ability to make decisions and allowing us to give in to things which we normally wouldn’t do.

Monkey Brain Has No Money in the Bank to Pay Psychic Costs

Monkey Brain, the limbic system in our brains, is very fond of doing things which feel good right now and putting off anything which isn’t pleasant. He wants fun now and doesn’t really care about what the future holds, because, as far as Monkey Brain is concerned, that future will never come.

Thus, when we’re faced with having to deal with our own mortality or our own frailties, we let Monkey Brain take over. It’s a painful subject to deal with, and we really don’t want to contemplate a world where we don’t exist, can’t walk/run/jump/play/tell jokes/whatever. Because those contemplations are stressful and exact a psychic cost, we try to put them off as long as we possibly can.

Yet, if we don’t address them, those concerns still manifest themselves in our minds. Let’s look at a much simpler problem to illustrate how this works. Most of us go somewhere to get the oil in our cars changed. When we do that, the mechanic puts the helpful sticker in the windshield to remind us of when we need to change our oil next – usually 3,000 to 5,000 miles after the most recent oil change.

Have you ever driven a few miles past that guideline? If so, do you start getting the “maybe I should go in and change the oil” thought rattling around in the back of your head? You get home, fix dinner, are having dinner table conversation, and suddenly the thought comes slamming into the front of your mind: “I need to change the oil!”

If this sounds like a familiar situation, you’ve seen the Zeigarnik Effect in action. The Zeigarnik Effect is when the subconscious won’t let you forget about an uncompleted task. It will rattle around in your brain over and over until you go and change the dadgum oil for crying out loud!

Monkey Brain tries to avoid the Zeigarnik Effect when it comes to dealing with negative outcomes in life by not even thinking about them in the first place. If you think about something, such as getting sufficient life insurance for your family in case you get hit by the beer truck, then it’ll rattle around in your brain until you make a decision about it.

Here are some ways in which Monkey Brain hinders your future planning and your future well-being:


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  • Life insurance. The act of purchasing life insurance is one of acknowledging that you’re not immortal and you may, in fact, die during the term of the insurance policy. You’d prefer to think that you’re going to be around forever, and, furthermore, can’t really stand the idea that there’d be all that money suddenly in the bank account if the policy pays out and you can’t be there to spend it!
  • A will. For the same reasons you don’t want to buy life insurance, it’s tough writing out a will, because you’re forcing yourself to project a world where you’re not there and determining what you want to happen to all of your prized possessions.
  • Long-term care insurance. If you’re not going to be dead, the next worst thing, according to Monkey Brain, is to be debilitated. Instinctively, we hate to be anything but self-sufficient, and needing long-term care is almost as diametrically opposed to being self-sufficient as possible. As a result, we shy away from thinking about getting long-term care insurance. Instead, we justify putting off or avoiding the decision by saying that we’ll never get sick and pointing to the distant relative (named Methuselah) who lived to the ripe old age of 137.
  • Advanced medical directives. Right up there in the Monkey Brain House of Horrors is thinking about being in a life-or-death situation where we’re incapable of making a decision about continuing medical care. Not only is the thought of having to determine whether or not to continue respiration, feeding, etc. pretty gory to think about, most advanced medical directives are pretty complicated, subjecting us to the tyranny of choice.

How can we get Monkey Brain to face the future?

The answer is much more simple to write than it is to put it down in practice. Just do it. The sooner you answer those questions about what your wishes are in the event that something bad happens, the sooner you can get rid of the Zeigarnik Effect and those thoughts rattling around in the back of your mind, despite Monkey Brain’s best attempts to suppress them. There will be a few one-time psychic costs involved, but once you get them in your rearview mirror, you can rest easy at night and let Monkey Brain relax a little.

One note to think about with advanced medical directives. They are complicated. One option that is being examined by Dr. Scott Halpern of the University of Pennsylvania is what is called a default medical directive. Using the same idea as the Save More Tomorrow plan for 401(k)s, this program sets defaults based on medical best practices rather than forcing people to make decisions amongst a menu of choices. It’s worth looking into to see if your provider offers one.

How do you deal with Monkey Brain running away when it comes to dealing with future health issues? Tell us about it in the comments below!

About Jason Hull, CFP®

Jason Hull, CFP®, is the Chief Technology officer of myFinancialAnswers, an online comprehensive financial planning service.

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