Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True, describes experiments that demonstrate how feelings are influenced by stories we have been told, or the stories we tell ourselves. In one of them, wine experts were unaware that the same Bordeaux was in two different bottles. One of them had a premium label, and the other was labeled as a table wine. Forty out of fifty-two subjects chose the former as the better wine.
In a similar study, several wines were used, and prices were attached to all of them. Only two bottles had the same wine, one that was priced at $90 and another priced at $10. As you might guess, the $90 bottle was chosen as the better of the two. What is most striking is the effect of the apparent “story lines” on their brain activity, as measured by brain scans. When subjects drank wine from the $90 bottle, researchers observed more activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex than in the brains of those drinking the $10 bottle. That part of the brain is associated with the experience of pleasure.
Negative story lines affect us too. In the second chapter of Living Well with ADHD, I compare washing one dish to cleaning the kitchen. Washing a dish does not require thought about how messy the kitchen is, estimation of how long the dreaded task will take, or consideration of how much worse it is to wash pots and pans than plates. Awfulizing about a task makes it unpleasant, whereas, interrupting the negative meaning-making helps us activate. If no one is making you wash the dishes…like my parents made me…you don’t have to commit to washing a second dish after the first…but you probably will.
Just knowing that activating is one of the greatest and most understated challenges for adults with ADHD can help us “jump,” as some ADHD experts call activating. Jumping into a task, before we have had time to consider the stories our brains want us to believe, can help us turn that corner. In time, the old stories get disproven and the task demystified. We can’t fake it and just make ourselves believe that the task is pleasant, but with practice, we can learn to notice the automatic thoughts that otherwise are like white noise. They are there, buzzing around us, whether we see them or not. If we don’t notice them, they do more harm than if we see then for what they are…just mental activity…extra thoughts that are not useful. You don’t need the extra head on top of your head.