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Home » Mental Brakes to Avoid Mental Breaks: Steven Hayes (Full Transcript)

Mental Brakes to Avoid Mental Breaks: Steven Hayes (Full Transcript)

Steven Hayes

Clinical psychologist Steven Hayes’ talk titled: “Mental Brakes to Avoid Mental Breaks” at TEDxDavidsonAcademy. In this insightful talk, Dr. Hayes discusses language, cognition, and the science behind putting on the mental brakes.


Human beings have the biological equivalent of a sports car between their ears. And it’s wonderful that we have this device.

Our ability to reason and problem solve; to plan, predict, evaluate, abstract, or create is the envy of the rest of living creation.

But you would not jump into a fast sports car and jam on the accelerator if somebody hadn’t told you where the brakes are and how to apply them. And this mind of ours, at times, takes us in the wrong direction.

And when it’s doing that, we have to know how to slow it down and to put on those brakes. And it’s not obvious where that is.

Our temptation is to put on the brakes by jamming on the accelerator and swerving back and forth really fast.

But it turns out the brakes are in an entirely different area. I’m giving this talk at a TEDx that’s sponsored by the Davidson Academy, which is one of the treasures of the U.S., a school for the gifted and talented, where young people who have IQs at the 99.9th percentile or above are educated.

And so I know I’m looking at people, who over the next years, are going to make a profound difference to human society, very likely.

But I’m also a clinical psychologist. And I know that I’m looking at people who are going to suffer. I know that I’m looking at people who are going to have thoughts come up very close like, “You’re not lovable,” or, “Life’s not livable.”

Like, “There’s something wrong with you.” “Deep down you’re bad” or, “You’re mean,” or, “You should be ashamed.” Or, “You need to figure out a way to run from that painful rejection,” or betrayal or that traumatic thing that happened to you.

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And when that happens, I don’t care how smart you are, you’re going to need to know how to put on the mental brakes.

And what I want to share with you is the surprising science of where those brakes are.

For the last 30 years, I and my colleagues have been studying language and cognition through the filter, through the lens, of a theory called Relational Frame Theory, or RFT — a perspective I developed decades ago, and the applied extension of that into Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, whole set of methods that we use in many, many different areas of human suffering.

And I want to explain to you what language and cognition is, why what we’re doing here right now is different than what the bird outside the window is doing.

Because when you see it, you’ll know a little bit of how to actually push on the accelerator even more. That’s not the purpose of my talk.

But you’ll also know why you cannot rely on that part of your mind only when you need to slow it down, when it’s taking you in the wrong direction.

So I could summarize 30 years of work in a little ditty, it’s kind of a little humiliating that you can do it, but you can, which is this: Learn it in one, derive it in two; put it in networks that change what you do. That’s 30 years of work.

And so I want to explain what that means and why we’re different than that bird outside the window.

Let’s take the first two lines: Learn it in one, derive it in two.

Take the simplest thing: the name for an object. Very young children, human infants, learn that if something has a name, if I’ve called this a boo-boo, let’s say, and then I said, “Where’s the boo-boo?” The infant, soon enough, would try to find this.

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We’re the only creatures that do that. The language-trained chimps don’t do that. In controlled research they don’t. And by the way, please don’t email me about your really smart dogs and cats.

I know you’ve got them; I’ve got one too. And they don’t do it. But we do do it.

If you happen to know that, for example, that round red thing is called an apple, if I were to say to a baby who’s had enough exposure to a normal verbal community and is normally developing, by around age 12 months, “Where’s the apple?” the baby will look for it. And then you can put it into networks that actually change what we do.

If you knew that the name for apple was also “yabuka”, and then I asked you to imagine when you’re really thirsty, going to the refrigerator and getting out a fresh bottle of yabuka juice and pouring it into a glass, and then imagine bringing up that yabuka juice and smelling what yabuka juice smells like, and then having a couple of big, sweet gulps of yabuka juice.

Can you imagine that? If you had cotton in your mouth and spit it out, many of you, your cotton is now heavier, because you’re salivating to yabuka juice. And unless you’ve lived in Croatia where apples are called yabukas, you’ve never heard it before, until this old bald guy said it to you. That’s how fast it happens.

And it’s wonderful as we begin to then learn other relationships other than names, like “before” and “after”, “cause” and “effect”, “bigger” and “smaller.”

And little kids break free from the formal properties of events. A little kid thinks a nickel is bigger than a dime, but a four, five, and six-year-old know a dime is bigger than a nickel.

But wait a minute. If a dime can be bigger than a nickel, then no matter how successful you are, maybe it’s not big enough. You should have been so much more.

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