The Neurology of Witches

We all have to face discomfort in our lives. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but not always. Unfortunately, Avoiding discomfort can cause us some real problems. 

  • Avoiding social discomfort talking to strangers means we don’t meet new people leaves us socially isolated
  • Avoiding the discomfort of exercise leaves us out of shape
  • Avoiding the discomfort of eating bitter veggies impacts our nutrition.  
  • Avoiding the discomfort of speaking up in meetings effects our careers.
  • Here’s an extreme one that happens all the time: Avoiding the discomfort of going to the doctor could mean something easily curable becomes incurable.

We’re all made uncomfortable by different things and to different degrees, but we can probably all benefit from pushing our boundaries at least a little. When it becomes particularly dysfunctional, psychologists will slip this behavior into the cubby they call “avoidance coping.”

What does this have to do with Witches? I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Novels, which have no shortage of them. They inhabit a world of elves, gnomes, Nac Mac Feegles, trolls, big and small gods, and of course magic. Their magical powers can be quite impressive, but what often sets them apart from the ordinary folk they administer to is more often their knowledge of human thought patterns, or as Granny Weatherwax calls it, “headology.” Much of the apparent magic performed by witches are actually tricks, and a good witch isn’t above tricking you into doing what’s good for you. 

Many of the witches are prone to having various levels of internal dissociation, the most extreme and fanciful case being Agnes Nitt, who has a full on, Sybil-like alter ego, Perdita, who occasionally takes over her body. In most cases, however, the internal dissociations manifest themselves as just dialogs with internal entities. 

In the case of Tiffany Aching, she is often having conversations with an internal entity she refers to as her Second Thoughts, or “thoughts you think about the way you think.” There are occasionally also third and fourth thoughts that get ever more meta, and often quite snarky.

What we see Tiffany doing is something that’s actually highly recommended by Leo Babauta over as Zen Habits. It is basically the technique of taking yourself out of the moment and stepping away from the discomfort you’re feeling. Instead of sitting outside the dentist’s office, dreading that root canal, realize that your a person who is sitting outside a dentist’s office dreading his root canal. You’re probably not the only one an this moment, and a few hours from now, you’ll be a person who’s had a root canal and is home, nicely hopped up on Vicodin.

The shift in perspective sounds meaningless, but it can make all the difference to getting done what needs to be gotten done. It’s a way of holding the discomfort (or fear, or social anxiety, or dread, or craving …) at arms length and putting it into a wider perspective, both in time and space. It’s also an internal reality check. Am I going to look back on the level of anxiety I’m feeling right now and realized it’s totally out of proportion to the discomfort that I actually felt? The answer is almost always yes.

It also ties well with the model of consciousness put forward by Daniel Dennett and others, namely that rather than there being a single central controller (which would really only regress the problem), consciousness is made from an assembly of subcomponents. These are simpler, and “less conscious,” and are in turn made of even simpler components, and so on down the single neurons.  When you give voice to your Second Thoughts, you’re shifting priority to the components responsible to observing others behaviors, but aiming it at yourself. It’s always easier to say “he or should do X” than to do X yourself, and that’s basically the perspective you’re forcing.  

Try it some time. It really works.