Default thinking

I am not a scientist, but it seems my brain seeks to satisfy a certain level of compulsion. If I’m not satisfying it through one compulsion, another intensifies to meet the level. This is not a hopeless situation, though. From what little I know about the brain’s workings, habitual ways of thinking become so deeply entrenched they result in “default” thought patterns.

If that’s true, maybe compulsions are a matter of deeply entrenched default patterns that compel me toward certain ways of thinking and behaving. I can reroute these powerful pathways, but it takes plenty of work by making a conscious effort to reinforce new ways of thinking. Perhaps that’s why OA works for those who work it. Through the Steps and tools, we learn new ways of thinking that we reinforce over and over. Going to meetings and sharing experiences with others who are also trying new ways of thinking and acting outside of compulsion serve to redirect us from old, nonworking patterns.

Perhaps the reason we can recover from but never be cured of compulsion is that our default pathways are like a set point. If our compulsive thinking and acting is our default and we are not constantly reinforcing the new pathways, then these pathways “reset” to default mode.

I’ve been trying to understand my compulsions for a long time. I have come across some stuff that has led me to this theory about how compulsion works. I might be wrong. But if there’s anything to it, I hope scientists studying the brain are reading this and getting together with the medical community so they can help the myriad people suffering from compulsions. (When I imagine a world where people live free of compulsion, I see a happier, saner, freer world for everyone.)

I was watching a movie yesterday about a brilliant mathematician studying for his doctorate. He said through mathematics he sees amazing things others don’t. When he looks at numbers and formulas, he sees things my brain doesn’t seem to have the capacity to detect or to communicate to me. That made me think of how amazing it is that our brains work in unique ways; some can see things in a mathematic formula and others in a lump of clay.

I wouldn’t criticize a tree for not being a flower or a man for not being a woman. (Okay, maybe I have criticized my husband for not thinking like a woman, but that underscores my point.) Expecting a tree to be a flower leads to pointless frustration. A more apt analogy would be criticizing a word-processing application for not working like a spreadsheet application. Expecting software that’s programmed to work one way to work another way will lead to frustration. The good news is I can “reprogram” my thoughts and actions by always working to reinforce new patterns of thought and behavior. I must remember who I am. Compulsion is my default. If I want to live another way, I must keep working the new ways so my brain does not reset to the default.

I have learned I am not strong enough to overcome my default patterns alone. I am powerless over food, and being active in compulsion makes my life unmanageable. I need a Higher Power and the help that power makes available through OA to live free of compulsion and the chaos that comes with it.

— Anonymous, New Jersey USA

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