Stinking Thinking

Stinking Thinking

Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Genesis 25:32

I’ve previously written about that primitive part of our brain – the nucleus accumbens – that seeks and produces a dopamine high from immediate gratification. Give me donuts now. Balancing that impulsive part of our brain is the prefrontal cortex, which considers the consequences of a behavior. Eating donuts makes me gain weight, so I should abstain. This is the continual war in our brain – that battle between what’s healthy and what we want right now. That’s not the complete story though. In the part of our brain that is supposed to think things through, we’ve got something called the medial orbitofrontal cortex. This is the thinking part of our brain that justifies our impulsive desires. It’s the part of our brain that says – If I eat enough donuts now, then I’ll become sick of them. So, in the long run, it would actually promote weight loss if I ate this whole box right now.

Anyone with any sense of reason can see that eating a dozen donuts won’t promote weight loss. But, in that moment, our medial orbitofrontal cortex attempts to convince us that wrong is actually right. This is what AA would call Stinking Thinking – those irrational thoughts that we employ to justify self-destructive behavior. For instance, I’ve met many patients with an opioid use disorder, who’re now off opioids but are addicted to methamphetamine. I was trying to get off fentanyl, but the withdrawals were terrible. A friend offered me meth to help with the withdrawals. Now, I’m hooked on meth. Everyone knows that methamphetamine is never a healthy choice, but to the one in opioid withdrawal, it honestly seems like a really good idea.

Today’s passage provides a great example of Stinking Thinking. In it, Esau came home famished from a hard day’s work, when Jacob offered him a bowl of stew for his inheritance. Esau’s medial orbitofrontal cortex kicked in – I’m starving. If I don’t eat, I’ll die. If I’m dead, my inheritance won’t do me any good. This is actually a good deal for me. Anyone could see it was a terrible deal, but at the time, Esau convinced himself that wrong was right.

We do this all the time. If I look at porn, at least I won’t have an affair. If I cheat on my taxes, I’m being a good steward of my money for God.  If I smoke pot, it will keep me sober from meth. Spending all this time on social media treats my anxiety. I want all the junk food out of the house, so I should just eat it all right now. Our appetite for the self-destructive is exceeded only by our ability to justify it.

So, what do we do? How do we combat this Stinking Thinking? I’m still working on it, but I’ve found that it helps to pursue rigorous honesty by involving those close to me. I can fool myself, but it’s always clear to others when I’m rationalizing. So, I often find myself asking what my wife or my friends would think. When I step outside myself, it’s usually easy to see how absurd I’m being. If I still don’t know, I should actually take the question to them. Usually though, if I honestly consider what others would think, I become painfully aware of my own twisted logic.

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