"Softly, softly…"


“…catchee monkey,” goes a proverb so old that its origin is anybody’s guess. Early 20th Century Britons assumed it came from somewhere in Asia [China or India, somewhere with free range monkeys, don’t you know]. It means, “You are more likely to catch a fugitive (thought or creature) by guile, than by charging at it directly, all guns blazing.”

My absolutely fave UK telly show in the early 60s was Z Cars, a cop show, wherein the Baddies were pursued by pairs of what are now called “gavvers” in unmarked Ford Zephyrs [whence the show’s name]. Car chases took a back seat to good character acting, some of it undoubtedly improvised, since the shows were broadcast live. By 1966, our heroes had been promoted to detective status, and appeared in a new show, Softly, Softly. All subsequent cat & mouse, “I’ll trick the truth out of you, Clever Clogs,” police procedural shows owe a debt to these 2 series.

One of these, The Bill, ran from the 80s right up until this year, when its producers decided (gasp!) that the story lines were becoming repetitive and predictable! Give over! That’s part of what we all loved about it. In its first decade there was a dour young Scottish detective who, in every episode, to signify that the villain was now ready to “cough” (confess), intoned, “In your own time…”

Which is the point of this post. “Ticking bomb” scenario or not, centuries of clinical experience and modern neuroscience agree: “You can’t hurry truth. You just have to wait.” Remember how Ronald Reagan excused his filmography of grade-B movies: “The studio had us on a tight schedule. They could have it good, or they could have it Tuesday.” Same thing when it comes to actionable intel. We can, by word or deed, exhort the (putative) Bad Guy to “Spit it out!” and get a quick (possibly false) confession; or we can “go all round Robin Hood’s barn” and catch him up in his own tangled web of lies.

The same choice of strategies applies to our own attempts to recover a fugitive thought. No matter how vital a piece of information may be, if we “rack” our brains for it [as in “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”], we redirect blood away from the hippocampus [the site of memory & problem-solving] to the amygdala [site of “OMG!”]. In academic settings, this is called “brain freeze,” or “an attack of stupid.” Like coaxing a skittish monkey [or dog] across a rickety footbridge to our side, we are likely to get better results with a “softly, softly” approach. Like the Scottish detective, we might try acting less humiliatingly desperate to get our uncooperative brain to “cough” the crucial but elusive intel, and instead intone, “In your own time…”

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Filed under ethology, limbic system

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