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.

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.

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.

This same problem-solving tool that we’ve got can turn on us, and it does.

And what are you going to do when it does?

Let me just show you some of the problems of just trying to rely on problem-solving only to put on the brakes.

Take an example like this: I don’t want you to think of jelly donuts that are filled with crème filling. So when that thought comes in your mind or you look at that and see that, I don’t want you to think of that; don’t think of that, it’s bad. It’s important you not think of that.

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What I suggest you think of instead are hats. So when you think of donuts, think of hats. Hats; remember hats. Think of donuts, think of hats. Hats, hats. You get it? You got it?

Now it is true in the moment that you’re thinking of hats, it seems like this works. This is where obsessive-compulsive disorder comes from, as we push it away, push it away, push it away.

But I can show you that that’s not real. That sense that you’ve got it under control now, this logical problem-solving mode of mind has eliminated that bad donut, I’ll show you it’s not true.

What comes to mind if I say this? Black, white, right? Hotcold, right? Hats. Donuts. That’s how fast it happens.

Learn it in one, derive it in two, put it in networks.

The network is now bigger, and just because you say “is not a” doesn’t mean that it’s not related. Opposite is a relation, different is a relation. And so the network’s gotten bigger. And now hats will remind you of donuts. I’ve now put that in your head.

And other people are putting things in your head. It wouldn’t be so bad if everything in our head we put in there, but we don’t. The television screen, or your sibling, or a parent when they’re really mad and criticizing you, or just things that occur to you; things go into your head. And once they go in, that’s an issue.

Suppose I were to tell you,- this is to see how fast it happens – I’ve got three numbers that I want you to remember. And the TED Talk people in cooperation with the Davidson Academy, maybe the Davidsons themselves, have given me the money such that when I ask you what the numbers are that I’m about to give you a week from now, if you remember them, I’ll give you $10,000, so it’s really important.

Here are the numbers: One, two, three. Now don’t forget it. Ten grand is on the line.

So if I tap you on the shoulder a week from now and I say, “What are the numbers?” you will say… One, two, three; good, don’t forget it; it’s really important.

I lied; there’s no money.

But do you doubt that a week from now if I came up and said, “What are the numbers?” You could tell me? How many people think you couldn’t tell me? How about a month from now? Are there people in here weird enough that a month from now you’ve taken up that gray matter, and that white, you’ve got one, two, three in your head? Really?

How about a year from now? There’s some people in here a year.

How about on your deathbed with a really old man? “What are your numbers?” Why? Just because I said it, that’s enough. Because that’s the way the human nervous system works.

It’s like having a calculator where there’s no minus button, and there’s no delete button, just pluses and equals and multiplies. Once in, it stays in.

I can tell you as a psychologist, there is no process in psychology called “unlearning.” There’s extinction, et cetera, but that’s inhibition. That’s not unlearning.

You can learn it again faster the next time, even if you’ve forgotten it, which means it must be there somewhere. One, two, three will be in your head for the rest of your life.

But suppose it was something really painful. Suppose it’s your girlfriend saying, “I don’t want you.” Suppose you’ve been betrayed in some deep way. There’s no place else for that to go.

And when it gets up close, when that voice starts telling you that you’re unlivable; that you’re unlovable and life’s unlivable, when that happens, you’re going to need to put on the brakes. And this little ditty orients us towards where that might be.

It’s not the “learn it in one, derive it in two, network” part. You’re just building networks when you’re arguing with yourself.

True, if you don’t have information, okay, get the information. If you just need to think more flexibly, okay. But most of the things that we really struggle with, we’re thinking that we’re going to get an eraser, or a delete button, and that doesn’t exist.

But the last line tells us what we can do: change what we do.

There are ways of changing how your thoughts function, how they work when they show up. What are the numbers?

We’ve been riding this tiger of language and cognition as long as homo sapiens exist, and probably, based on brain size, some of the early hominids. That’s probably 400,000 years old. We know it’s not more than 2.8 million years old, because the chimpanzees don’t do this. But we do.

But we’ve been riding this tiger and been trying to figure it out. And, actually, if you want to pick one place as to where we might get some ideas about what to do, it’s not going to be in the problem-solving part of our culture; it’s in the wisdom traditions.

It’s in our spiritual and religious traditions. And that will help us orient towards what the process is.

How do we change what we do?

And once you see that, then you can see there’s other ways that are outside those traditions. And we’ve come up with them in the work on RFT and ACT and tested them.

Everything I’m going to tell you about has been tested in multiple scientific studies, literally hundreds of studies on RFT and close to 1,000 studies on ACT.

So let’s just take this first one that does directly come out of the spiritual and religious traditions, which is mindful awareness of thoughts, because it will help us see the principle.

If anybody’s in here a meditator, you know that your job is to simply watch your thoughts unfold as a process with a sense of dispassionate observation. You don’t have to put a big religious wraparound to do that.

Anyone in here could do it. You could do it by simply watching the clouds in the sky go by, and with each thought that shows up, stick another one in the cloud. Don’t push it away; the cloud goes at its own speed.

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Don’t cling to it; you’re not controlling the clouds. Just put it there and let it go, if it comes back again, put another one. Or pick anything, like cars going by on the freeway or leaves floating by on the stream; practice this, and you’ll get this sense.

And what is the sense? That’s where the brake is. Here’s what the sense is: to watch your mind do its work with a sense of distance and dispassionate curiosity. Not to buy into the thoughts and look at the world structured by it, but to watch the process of thinking in flight, and that’s what you’re doing with your contemplation and meditation.

That puts on the brakes. It’s just like watching a spider weave a web, a little cognitive web. Look at that. Isn’t that interesting? That puts on the brakes.

And if that’s what’s going on here, yes, of course contemplative practice, I suggest it to everybody, it’s a good thing to do.

But I’m going to give you some things that will seem silly, that will seem odd but I’ve been shown in scientific research to be of some help.

My first suggestion: give your mind a name. If it’s named, it’s different than you, you can listen to it with a sense of distance and watch it babble on and make some choices; are you going to be guided by it or not? Sometimes it has good advice, sometimes bad.

You don’t have to argue with it or make it stop talking to you. You don’t have to change its opinion. Just go, “Okay, thank you, George. What else you got to say? Uh, okay. Thank you.” I call my mind “George.”

If you don’t like George, pick your own name. If you don’t have one come to mind, you can pick Mr Mind or Ms Mind and literally get a bit of separation when you’re having that painful thought, recognize this is your mind talking to you. And some of this may be things you came by honestly, things you heard.

What are the numbers? It isn’t necessarily anything you have to do anything about. If you have a thought up on you and you need to put it out there, not to make it go away, but just you can see it as it is, instead of just seeing the world structured by it.

Same with a thought. If you’re having a thought, an archetypal bad thought, like “I’m bad, I’m really bad,” and you’re really feeling down on yourself, I suggest singing that thought. In absence of any other suggestion, how about to “Happy Birthday”? (Singing to tune of “Happy Birthday”) “I’m really, really, really bad. I’m really, really, really bad. I’m really, really, really, really, really… I’m really, really, really bad.” (ends singing)

Thank you, George. This is not to ridicule your mind. I’m not doing that. It’s just to remind you that it’s just a voice talking.

And whether you do with it, base it on your heart and your values and what works in the situation, not just on the automatic pilot, the push-pull, click-click of learning it in one direction, deriving it in two, and putting it in networks.

You can’t trust that problem-solving mode to give you the right answer.

Here’s one, and I’m going to ask for some audience participation. You’re going to have to help me here or I’m going to look really stupid.

This was invented by Titchener, a father of American psychology more than 100 years ago, or actually, exactly 100 years ago. And he had this theory of language and cognition that oriented towards what? This idea that, if you took language out of context, it would lose its meaning.

And the way he did that, in public talks and demonstrations, he would have people repeat a word out loud really fast. We’ve done the research on it. You get a diminishment of distress, a diminishment of believability at about 30 seconds.

And so I’m going to do it just 20, because you’ll get the sense, and I don’t want to drive people crazy on YouTube.

But what I’m asking you to do is to take a word. We’ll take milk. Why? Because most of us know what that’s like. And take just a minute to think of what milk is like; what it tastes like, what it smells like, what it looks like.

Cold milk, white milk, the perceptual functions.

And then the thing I’m going to ask you to do with me, I’ll do it with you, so I’ll be as foolish as you are, is to say the word milk out loud, fast, for 20 seconds. And then just see what happens to white, cold, creamy, glug-glug stuff. Are you willing to be complete idiots for just 20 seconds? Help me out here. You willing? All right.

Ready, set, go. Loud [Everyone repeats “milk” for 20 seconds]. A little louder. A little faster.

Okay; the longest 20 seconds of the whole talk.

What happened to white, creamy, cold glug-glug stuff? It started going away, it started going away. And other things showed up, like how hard it is to say that word over and over again. Your mouth started getting tired. And the weird sound; isn’t it a weird sound?

But look, some of these difficult thoughts are just programmed, like what are the numbers? One, two, three.

At one level they’re nothing other than sounds. You’re going to turn your life over to that? Really? It’s not safe.

Put on the brakes. So if you have “bad” up on you, do 30 seconds. It turns out 30 is about right, really fast, on bad.

I gave a talk at Stanford; it was to a large, prestigious group. I was talking about the amount of money that we’d spent on sleeping medications and how it’s gone up to about well, the slide said three, and what I should have said is, “Three billion,” and instead I said, “It’s gone up to three trillion dollars.”

Then I went home to my hotel and I went to sleep. And at 3:00 in the morning I sat up bolt upright and said, “Three trillion dollars, you idiot! That’s not right.”

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I leapt out of the bed, I’m marching back and forth. “They probably recorded it; I did it at Stanford.”

I said, “You’re stupid; how stupid could you be?” And that reminded me of word repetition. If you just said over and over again, “How stupid can you be?” there’s enough gaps there, that keeps its meaning.

But instead I sat on the bed and really fast said out loud, to nobody, “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.” And then I went to sleep.

I recommend it; it’s a brake.

Oh, dear; here’s one that seems very, very silly, but it makes a very dramatic difference. If you have a difficult thought that’s up on you, say it in different voices, maybe your least preferred politician. I won’t guess who that might be.

Or if you don’t like that, how about a cartoon character? If we were taking that thought like, “I’m bad, I’m really, really bad,” I guarantee you it will feel a little different if you’re saying, “I’m bad. I’m really bad.”

Now be careful; I’m not telling you to ridicule your mind. Really, I’m not. And at the very end I’ll explain a way to make sure that comes together. It’s to get a little separation, to get some air in the room.

Slow it down, so you can make some choices. If you’ve already done the work and you’re really tired you’re sick and tired of a particular self-criticism or self-evaluation and you’re ready to let it go don’t do this until you’ve done the work, because the final step is kind of a public declaration as a way of taking that deep, dark secret and sharing it with others, because it turns out the big joke is our secrets are the same secrets.

Write it out and stick it on your chest on a sticky note, or if you really want to, order it for a t-shirt. And just see what happens. Just wear it out in public.

And I guarantee you that thing is going to drain out the energy, almost by the minute. Robyn Walser, an ACT person in Palo Alto, came up with this working with veterans who have to face some really difficult, really difficult thoughts.

We ask our soldiers to do such tough things. And they’re having things like “murderer” on their chest. And by God, you know, I’m not going to run around and have that running my life anymore, here.

They wore it almost like boy scout badges, yeah? The first time I ever did it, when I heard that Robyn was doing this, I was giving a workshop at a church camp up at Lake Tahoe, and I wrote down the word “mean.”

And I remembered this memory of being caught when I was about six years old with a magnifying glass at El Cajon, California figuring out how fast tarantulas go if you really heat up their rear end.

And the look on my mother’s face to this day, Iike… I’m really bad. You know, that’s the kind of weird thing little boys do.

And, yeah, I shouldn’t do that to spiders, I get that. But here I am in my 60s or 50s by then, walking around with “I’m mean” for the rest of my life. Really? So I stuck it on my chest. But it was so hard.

When we took a break and I went to get coffee from the church camp cook, I went like this so that he wouldn’t see it. And now it’s completely gone; I get it, I get I have a history. Okay. But I’m not mean.

I’m not going to be running from mean for the rest of my life. An easier way to do it, a little small version on this, is put it on your screensavers, the kind that have words come up. Take difficult thoughts, put it on screensaver, give yourself a regular opportunity to notice those thoughts and see: does that really have to run your life?

My students, I’m sure it was them, snuck into my office over here. And I’m sure they did it, because I’m in there having a meeting. I look over at my computer.

And it says over there, “Deep down, there’s something wrong with you.” I’m going to eventually find out who did it, don’t think I’m not. Somebody snuck in. I said that I would try to get the emotional feeling for it, and I want to finish my last example of hundreds that we have developed.

You can access it in these self-help books and so forth under the ACT work. If you have something that is really up like this, that has a history that goes back a long way, picture yourself as young as you can go having a thought like that or things like it.

And take a little time to picture what you looked like at that age: what your hair was like, what you dressed like.

And then, in imagination have those words come out of that child’s voice, out of that child in the voice of a child. And I guarantee you, it will stab you through the heart. To hear some of the things we say to ourselves, when you hear it out of the mouth of a child.

And it will pull from you the kind of self-compassion and kindness that is the purpose of these kinds of methods. This is not about ridicule. This is about learning how to deal with a language tiger and to ride it, without having it run you right off the edge of the cliff.

So I’m giving you just some ideas in the surprising science of where the mental brakes are. They’re not in just figuring it out and evaluate it and making your thoughts change.

They’re more in taking a self-kind, compassionate posture, and looking at that little mental spider doing its work with an attitude of dispassionate curiosity. Let your mind do what it’s doing, but figure out when it’s pushing you in the wrong direction, how to put on the mental brakes.

You need that skill; we all do. And mental brakes avoid mental breaks. I hope I’ve been useful to you.


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