Surface-Level Thinking

Can our tendency toward surface-level thinking be hindering our mental illness recovery? Perhaps we need to dig deeper?

We humans are many things: kind, generous, hardworking. In the same vein, we are flawed, prone to illness (both mentally and physically) and our thoughts and memories dominate our lives. Heck, even the concrete way we view the world can be disastrous.

That’s why, in some sense, we can be led astray. And while there is nothing wrong with belief, similarly, the way we live our lives, so long as it isn’t harming anyone, is okay too.

But what if the way we are living our lives is indeed harmful? Not only to others, but to ourselves? Hey, let’s be honest – it does happen. While we are just trying to live based on the interpretation of our teachings and worldly experience, sometimes surface-level thinking can harm us (although this isn’t always the case).

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So then, what exactly do I mean by surface-level thinking? Well, when I use this phrase, I am referring to taking things at face value and building an opinion or belief around it. Anxiety, for example, is a factor designed to inject surface-level thinking into the fear response – conjuring up suggestions of “fear-based reason,” something that should be feared and thus avoided. Perhaps this is why we see so much division in our world and in particular, social media.

Anxiety is our fear-based response to danger, an ancient mechanism that helped us run or fight for survival. An asset when trying to survive a pre-modern society. I mean, no one wants to be someone’s lunch, right?

However, there is a problem with this “mechanism,” especially in the modern world. It shuts down the reasoning centre of the brain, or at least, severely dulls it down. Hence, the term, surface level-thinking. In times when one is running for their life, there is little need to figure out how you got into the sights of a lion, for example, and you don’t need to figure out how to avoid it in future. Mainly, you just need to get the heck out of there.

Robert Sapolsky – Neuroscientist, digs deep to explain human behaviour.

Surface level thinking.

Books by Robert Sapolsky

Professor Sapolsky is talking about a lot of interesting things that make us human in this Ted talk. And… it’s an example of thinking beyond what “you think” is going on. Science is great because it starts with questions, hypotheses and attempts to dig beyond the surface to find answers.

It is my contention that we, as non-neuroscientists, need to take a similar approach to our everyday lives. We all have questions, yet many of us aren’t as inclined to seek the detailed answers to them. What’s more, and where things get a bit heated, is that we, despite our capacity to dig deeper, don’t. Instead, we read a headline and draw conclusions based on the headline…. a dangerous approach to building a belief around.

More dangerous still, is our insistence on flooding the internet with our loosely-constructed, “fact-based” theories. We often seek out information that confirms our way of surface-level thinking, rarely asking “Is what I believe actually true?”

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Furthermore, challenging one’s bias is very difficult. Nonetheless, it’s worth de challenging yourself to dig deep and look at every possible angle. Otherwise, if mentally ill, how will you heal? If you only let depression speak, you will stall your progress. Learn that there are things you can do to help yourself, rather than resigning yourself to the “I can’t do it, I’m depressed” belief.

Now, I have major depression and sometimes it drives the bus – however, because I have looked beyond surface-level thought (depression speaks) I know that some exercise will help. Thus, I go for a walk and lo and behold, I see improvements. I may be depressed, but I have things that help.

Front and back cover of the road to mental wellness - 8 sings your relationship is hurting your mental health.
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Need an example?

So, If I were to ask you “What makes your car go?” what would your answer be? If you know little about how cars get you around – a scary proposition in my view – then maybe you would respond with “Gas makes the car go.” Maybe even say “the tires.” Both answers are, of course, correct… However, it’s equally correct, that they are only part-truths.

In other words, if we learn about all the factors that make a car go (beyond surface-level thinking) we learn that: fuel is delivered to the combustion engine, a sealed block with cylinders that push the fuel against the spark plugs. This, combined with the right amount of air coming into the combustion chamber, causes an explosion. It is this right mixture of fuel, air and spark that propel you down the road. But…. wait, it’s more than that.

The engine provides power to the wheels. The wheels have their own detailed setup that allows the tires to turn. Of course, this doesn’t explain the entire process. It does, however, provide us with an illustration of how a singular thought can technically be correct, while at the same time, be far from the whole truth…

In short, don’t let the thoughts that drive your mental illness be the reason you can’t get better. There is much more to your road to mental wellness, than what your illness would have you believe. Dig deep, and you will find your answers.

Jonathan Arenburg

Jonathan Arenburg is a mental health blogger, S speaker, writer, and published author; He is also the host of the mental wellness podcast, #thewellnesstalksHe has also appeared in the i'Mpossible's Lemonade Stand III. He has also been a contributing writer for Mental health talk, a column in his local paper. In addition, he has also written for the mental health advocacy organization; Sick Not Weak.Jonathan has also appeared on several mental health-related podcasts Including: A New Dawn, The Depression Files, Books and Authors, and Men Are Nuts. Since being put off work because of PTSD, Jonathan has dedicated his time to his mental wellness journey while helping others along the way.Educated as an addictions' counsellor, he has dedicated most of his professional life of eighteen years, working with those who have intellectual disabilities, behavioural challenges, and mental illness.He has also spent fifteen years in the volunteer fire service helping his community.His new book (2021), “The Road To Mental Wellness,” goes into detail about his life-long battle with depression, anxiety and more recently, PTSD. In it, he hopes to provide insight on how mental illness cultivates over a lifetime and, if not recognized and treated, how it impacts the entirety of one's life; right from childhood into the adult years. Jonathan lives with his two children in Nova Scotia, Canada.

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