Sensemaking & Cognitive Reprisal

publishedover 1 year ago
2 min read

I recently got the opportunity to speak to Annie Murphy Paul (author of The Extended Mind) about a concept she calls cognitive reappraisal. The basic idea is that our brains have the ability to give new meanings to actions and therefore change how we feel about them.

For example, let’s say you have to give a talk but have a fear of public speaking.

As the time approaches, you probably start to feel some physical changes in your body:

  • your heart rate increases
  • your blood pressure rises
  • your breathing quickens

Your body is basically priming the pump to go into fight vs. flight mode.

Traditional thinking on emotional processing is that 1) actions are interpreted by the brain, 2) the brain chooses the appropriate emotion, and 3) the body acts accordingly. But the reality is a little bit different:

  1. Something happens
  2. We act
  3. Our brain pieces things together

Cognitive reappraisal recognizes the action (changes in the body) but intentionally redirects the emotion. So instead of being nervous (typically defined as a “negative” emotion), we can reframe it and choose to be excited (typically a “positive” emotion).

(Side note: all the verses like Philippians 4:4 ("Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, rejoice") start to make a lot more sense when you realize there's a space between what happened and your brain's interpretation of the event.)

I’m also reading a book for Bookworm called Unwinding Anxiety where the author (Dr. Judson Brewer) maps these fight vs. flight options with our behavior tendencies:

  1. Fight = Approach
  2. Flight = Avoid

The book also has a behavioral tendency quiz, where I scored 100% on the Avoid scale 😂. So I know exactly what that nervousness I described earlier feels like!

But I’ve also overcome my fear of public speaking by joining a Toastmasters group. I had a real-life example of how cognitive reappraisal worked before I even knew what that was, and now it’s got me thinking:

What else have I been avoiding that I should really be leaning into?

Last year I did a sensemaking workshop with Nick Milo (the replay is still available here) where we defined sensemaking as “the action or process of making sense of or giving meaning to something”. I love this concept, and I view cognitive reappraisal as an essential tool for sensemaking in my yearly theme of recalibration.

What about you? Is there anything you’ve been avoiding that you could redefine through cognitive reappraisal?

Until next time, keep making sense of things.

— Mike

Recent podcast episodes

Focused Episode #146: The Extended Mind, with Annie Murphy Paul

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Bookworm Episode #139: Personal Socrates by Marc Champagne

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