An exploration into the workings of the mind and how we can use its tools – and limitations – to our advantage...
By Toby Carrodus
The human brain is an incredibly powerful tool. It efficiently operates with small amounts of information to continuously perceive and process the world around us. The brain is also different from the mind, despite these words being used synonymously. How? One aspect that makes this clear is that when you die, your brain is still here, but your mind is not. Analogously, you could say your mind is a form of “software” and your brain “hardware.”
Understanding this distinction is important, because it is the first step in learning how to allow your mind to harness the power of your brain. By doing so, you can achieve almost anything you want in life. Before we continue though, it’s worth noting two things up front:
While you can have almost anything you want in life, you cannot have everything you want in life, so you need to be selective with your focus
There are some obvious boundaries to what you can achieve and have in life no matter how well you utilize your mind and brain, e.g., you cannot jump off a building and “will” yourself to fly 😊
Getting what you want out of life gets easier when you realize the reality around us is really like a game we are all playing that is shaped by our five senses: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting. These senses (if you’re lucky enough to have them all) are more or less the same for all humans. We use them to agree upon certain central facts relating to how the world looks, sounds, feels, smells and tastes. But what about a dragon fly, which has 28,000 lenses per eye or a spider that has eight eyes? Their perception of reality will be dramatically different to ours, as we only agree upon our perceptions of reality because we all share the same senses. But we have never experienced the world using the sensory apparatus of e.g., an eight-eyed spider, which could in fact suggest that the world is very different to how we understand it as humans.
This example highlights a key aspect of how our senses impact our experience of life. Our senses impact all information that is fed to our brains. In turn, our brains are processing mechanisms that can only call upon three types of information:
1. the present moment,
2. past experiences, and
3. learned knowledge
All three of these are derived from our senses. During our experience of the present moment, the enormous amount of information being fed from our senses to our brains is being updated continuously in real-time. However, much of this information is ignored by our brains. Our brains simply cannot comprehend the inexhaustible complexity of reality in its entirety. Instead, our brains act more as a classificatory apparatus by remaining selectively attentive to certain situational characteristics deemed as relevant, organizing things into different classes of objects and, quite simply, ignoring the rest.
The Reticular Activating System
This intentional ignorance is an evolutionary trait, as most of the information fed from reality to our brains via our senses is not necessary for survival. Our brains are universally wired to recognize food, sex and danger, as accurate identification of each of these is critical to survival of the human species. But there is another part of our brain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) that allows for additional information to pass our brains’ filters. The RAS filters the information fed to our brains from our senses based on our emotional attachment to the information, as the emotion associated with a particular piece of information directly influences our biochemistry (more on this later).
As strange as it sounds, the information derived from past experiences and learned knowledge primarily gets stored in your brain because you can recall how it feels.
As strange as it sounds, the information derived from past experiences and learned knowledge primarily gets stored in your brain because you can recall how it feels. The stronger the emotion associated with a certain type of information, the easier it is to recall. This is why you can generally remember key milestones more vividly than a given random day. For example, if I asked where you were on September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Centers were destroyed, you could probably recall this information. But if I asked where you were on a random day like November 5th, 2004, you probably could not recall this information as it is not emotionally important to you.
Similar to the way it is easier for your brain to recall information with a strong emotional attachment, the RAS acts as a filter on your brain. Namely, it filters the huge amount of information being fed to your brain from your senses based on how emotionally important a particular piece of information is. To make this tangible, let’s start with a simple example. Do you recall a moment in your life where you resolved to buy a particular type of car? You probably experienced a rush of emotion from the clarity, certainty and excitement that came with making that decision. This emotional reaction in turn activated your RAS. Then, all of a sudden you started seeing that car everywhere you went.
The funny thing is, those cars were always there. Your brain just did not realize that that was relevant information to you, and so disregarded it. But now, with the emotional attachment to this car, your brain begins to allow information relating to this car through its filters.
Feelings are Experienced in the Body, Thoughts are Experienced in the Brain
Think again about that emotional reaction of clarity, certainty and excitement after resolving to buy a particular car. Where did you feel this? You probably felt giddy in your stomach, your heart rate rose and your breathing deepened. Did you notice that these are all reactions in your body? This is an important point, as emotions are experienced in the body, not the brain. Thoughts, on the other hand, are experienced in the brain. So feelings are experienced in the body and thoughts are experienced in the brain.
This observation leads us to a peculiar observation: your body does not know the difference between actual reality and an imagined reality visualized in your brain. Think about it - if you close your eyes and vividly imagine a situation, such as a fight with a family member, the response is that your heart rate will increase, your body will heat up and you may become tense. But nothing has actually happened in reality – it is an imagined experience. So if an imagined experience can influence the body and emotions are primarily felt in the body, we can use the fact that the RAS and memory are activated by emotion to steer them to intentionally filter information that is important to what we want in life.
One of the best ways of doing this is visualization: taking your time, you sit in a relaxed state, calm your breathing, close your eyes and vividly visualize what it feels like to have what it is you seek right in front of you. It is also crucial to invoke as many of your five senses as possible in your visualization. As your body cannot tell the difference between imagination and reality, if your visualization is real enough, you can create the emotional reaction needed to activate your RAS. The enormous amount of information being fed to your brain via your senses will now be filtered to include information relevant to your goal and become embedded into your subconscious self. Just like the eight-eyed spider that may perceive reality entirely different to us, we do not experience life or reality as it actually is. We instead experience the life and reality we focus on, and our RAS helps direct our brain direct its unconscious focus.
Cynics often turn their noses up at the concept of “visualization.” They believe it is the domain of positive-thinking, motivational speakers whom they are above. They cloak their resistance in pseudo-intellectual pessimism. The problem here is a general one of human nature, as pessimism often sounds smarter than optimism because our brains have evolved to identify what is wrong with a situation rather than what is right. This has been useful from a survival perspective in terms of identifying predators, but can also hold us back in life from identifying opportunities. Tech entrepreneur Naval Ravikant summarized this most succinctly and eloquently by stating “pseudo-intellectual pessimism is the most expensive status symbol.”
Write Your Goals Down Regularly
Another technique that is also regularly dismissed but beneficial is writing your goals down every day. By consciously and regularly writing your goals down, you are tuning your brain’s filters to subconsciously allow information relevant to these goals in. In time, more and more relevant information will begin to make its way past your brains filters and help you on your path to achieving your goal. You will find ways to open doors that were previously closed, or even identify doors that you previously did not see. Of course this in itself does not guarantee success, but it can speed up the process, as it unleashes the power of your unconscious mind. An optimal time to do this is in the morning, as it helps direct your unconscious focus for the rest of the day. While it is no replacement for consistent and dedicated hard work, day in, day out, directed towards your goals, it is certainly another tool in your toolkit you can use to your advantage.
Another notable aspect of human cognition that we can leverage is “confirmation bias.” For the uninitiated, confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports a given statement or set of values. Many of us are not conscious of such bias, which is problematic given how much it can influence our actions and outcomes in life. How your mind asks questions of yourself influences the information your brain returns to you. Instead of asking “why can’t I seem to do this?”, ask instead “how can I do this?” Whatever question your mind asks of your brain, your brain will generally seek information to confirm.
For many of us, confirmation bias rears itself in our deep-seated beliefs, of which we may not even be conscious of. For example, let’s say you want to embark on a new challenge, such as starting a new business. If your underlying belief is that it absolutely is going to work, you are likely to put in a huge amount of effort. This in turn gives you at least a shot at succeeding. What if instead your underlying belief was that it was doomed to fail? Well, you probably won’t put in much effort and when it doesn’t work you’ll say “see, I knew it wasn’t going to work.” This is exactly how beliefs and confirmation bias impact your behavior. John Henry Ford, inventor of the modern automobile, articulated this best in saying “whether you think you can or can’t, you’re probably right.”
A large part of confirmation bias stems from how you identify yourself and the language and story you use around this identity. Let’s say your father left home right when you were transitioning from being a child to becoming an adult. You can blame all of your life’s problems on this event and say “I never had a chance in life because of my parents.” But you could flip this story on its head and say “I had a strong foundation to build a successful life because I had to learn how to stand on my own feet early. This gave me a head start in life who had to learn this much later.” Either way, the story you tell yourself about key events in your life gives them meaning. You can’t change the events of the past. They happened. But you can change the meaning you take from those events, and you can do so in a way that serves you. In changing your story, over time your brain will look for evidence to support that story, so it is best to have a story that helps you. After hearing this, oftentimes people realize that the worst day of their life may in fact have actually been the best day of their life.
Did you know that by the time you turn 35, neuroscientific research indicates that 90% of the thoughts you think each day are the same thoughts? As bleak as it sounds, by age 35 most of your personality consists of a set of memorized behaviors, emotional reactions, beliefs and unconscious attitudes that have been hardwired into your brain. These memorized patterns run like automatic programs that continually stamp the same networks of neurons over and over again all for the familiar feeling we label our “self.”
By consciously using tools such as visualization and writing your goals down each day, you can begin to break these hardwired patterns by creating new ones and influencing your subconsciousness in a way that serves you in getting what you want out of life. However, while this is useful in and of itself, it is not enough. You also need to put conscious effort into controlling your “state.”
The state you’re in influences the decisions you make. For example, if you’re in a bad mood coming home from work you are more likely to snap at your spouse. They probably did not do anything wrong, but the state you were in influenced how you responded. The problem here is that emotions are felt in our body and our bodies generally have a preference for “homeostasis.” This basically means our bodies want to keep the balance of chemicals within our body more or less the same most of the time. That’s all well and good if you’re crushing it in life and are in a great state most of the time, but is problematic if you tend to be in a depressed and low energy state, or even worse, a chronically stressed state.
In the modern age of being constantly “plugged-in,” many of us tend to operate in a stressed state much of the time. We rush from appointment to appointment and are constantly bombarded by ringing and chiming interruptions from our smart phones. When operating like this for prolonged periods of time, our bodies actually become accustomed to a base level of stress. When this base level of stress is absent, our bodies’ need for homeostasis starts to influence the chemical balance within our bodies to make us more likely to be triggered. Then, when we are triggered and create stress, we once again restore order within our body’s biochemistry. This means that even when we don’t have immediate cause for stress, our bodies will often find a way to invoke the stress response if we’ve become accustomed to operating with stress on a regular basis.
Many people are addicted to stress because of how it makes us feel. When we experience outrage, we give our nervous system a kick that provides us with a rush of energy and sense of significance and control in our lives.
Many people are addicted to stress because of how it makes us feel. When we experience outrage, we give our nervous system a kick that provides us with a rush of energy and sense of significance and control in our lives. People stuck in this behavioral loop need to feel outrage at the latest news headline or anger at their co-worker or boss. The body’s need for homeostasis in this state begins to influence how your brain operates.
This is concerning, because in a stressful situation you are less likely to operate from the thoughtful, considered part of your brain and more likely to operate from your “fight or flight” monkey-brain. The “monkey brain” is what Daniel Kahneman famously refers to as “System 1,” which is pre-historic, fast and instinctive, whereas the “evolved” brain is referred to as “System 2,” which is deliberative and logical. In today’s pressured, professional work environments, it is crucial to have mental clarity in order to make sensible decisions, and you are not going to do this is you are constantly operating from System 1.
What’s worse, it is commonly accepted in medicine that stress is a major factor in cancerous diseases and your body’s ability to heal itself. If your body has become addicted to stress, you can only imagine the damage this is doing to you not just through its impact on the decisions you make, but also on your long-term health. Recall again that your body cannot sense the difference between an imagined experience and a real experience. This means your thoughts are literally changing your biochemistry and impacting your health. This works both ways, though. If you’re able to create the conditions for disease to grow in your body via your thought patterns and general state, you’re also able to create the conditions for healing and optimal decision-making in your body via your thoughts and general state.
Enter the Present
How then, can you break these patterns and influence your general state? In general, you need to engage in an activity that brings you joyfully into the present moment. For many people, this is related to experiencing something using your body and concentrating fully on it. There are many ways to achieve this state: for example, surfing, lifting weights in the gym, hiking in nature, meditating or something as simple as concentrating on your breathing. All of these activities interrupt your standard physiological patterns and bring you into the present moment. This positively influences your biochemistry and allows your brain to take a rest from all the stimulus that comes at us day to day.
Your brain is just like any other part of your body – if it is put under constant strain without respite, it is not going to function optimally. Nowadays, we have so much stimulus around us 24/7: the media inventing scandals and creating outrage, endless streams of social media, never-ending SMS group chats and the inescapable presence of the internet. All of these compete for your attention. Being constantly bombarded with so much stimulus does not give the brain a chance to rest. It also makes it easier for us to get stuck in unconscious behavioral patterns. This is why it is so important to schedule “down time” in our lives to engage in pursuits that bring us into the present moment. One long held suspicion I have is that if people are perceived as being overly sensitive and easily enraged nowadays, it is probably linked to the non-stop stimulus from technology and constantly operating from System 1, which occurs if the mind does not get a break.
The mere act of rehearsing a behavior via visualization begins to lay the neurological foundations in your brain by making it appear as if the experience has already happened.
Scheduling “down time” and engaging in some activity that brings us into the present moment doesn’t just allow us to calm our minds, it is also the best time to use the tools listed above: visualization and consciously considering your “story.” As your biochemistry has just been interrupted and your brain has been given a rest, this is the best time to “install” new wiring in your brain via a form of visualization. The mere act of rehearsing a behavior via visualization begins to lay the neurological foundations in your brain by making it appear as if the experience has already happened. In fact, with respect to physical pursuits, research by Dr. Blaslotto at the University of Chicago has demonstrated that visualization can instantiate the same performance benefits as physical practice. Some tips on visualizing effectively are to write down your vision of your goal in as much detail as possible using all five senses and then, once in a relaxed state, focus clearly on using your mind to imagine your vision using all five senses and in as much detail as possible.
Creating New Pathways
Affecting change through these procedures is a slow process, however. It is therefore important to integrate them into your daily routines. 5 minutes or less should be enough time for you to write your goals down and visualize the process and the outcome of achieving your goals (you may initially need longer for your “story”). A clear challenge is your body’s need for homeostasis, because if your body has become accustomed to operating with a certain chemical balance, you are going to experience a form of withdrawal symptoms where your body seeks to influence your brain. If you’ve scheduled some “down-time” for an activity that focuses on bringing you into the present moment and thereby given your brain a chance to rest and temporarily reset your biochemistry, you will be better able to remain in control and operate from System 2 to combat this.
It is hence important to make sure you find time for this daily. Sticking to a routine should not be difficult. Your routine should be organic and congruent to your lifestyle and goals in life. It should be designed to put processes in place that help you move closer to your goals. This brings us to an important point: a routine is really about your goals, what you want to achieve in life. Creating a routine with your goals in mind makes it sustainable, as it is a lot easier to follow a routine when you know why you are doing it. If your routine is defined by your goals, it is easier to get excited by it!
Sticking to a routine might sound boring to some people, but I personally find it liberating. My routine does the heavy lifting for me. I don’t have to worry about reaching my long-term goals, as I know that I will reach them by taking small, consistent steps each and every day in the direction of my goals.
Go Forth and Crush It In Life
There is no underestimating that life is complex. Thankfully, our brains simplify much of this complexity for us. Crucially, so much of what we experience in life depends on what we focus on. If we’re not conscious in directing our focus, our minds – and lives – can be a scrambled mess, getting pulled in one direction one day and an entirely different direction on another. Our RAS directs our focus by letting information from our senses past our brains’ filters. The information allowed in is determined by our emotional attachment to that information, similar to the way our brain calls on information from past experiences and learned knowledge based on our emotional attachment to it.
Noting that emotions are felt in the body and that our bodies cannot distinguish between imagined situations and real situations, we can utilize tools such as writing down our goals and visualization to activate our RAS. The optimal time to write down your goals is early in the day as this primes your brain’s unconscious focus for the day ahead. The optimal time to visualize is after you have engaged in some activity, whether it be meditation or exercise, that improves your state, changes your biochemistry and forces you into the present moment. During these moments your mind is most open to forming new neurological pathways and laying foundations for new unconscious thought patterns. A beneficial side-effect of regular meditation or exercise is that by doing this regularly you can positively influence your body’s biochemistry to create a positive homeostatic state. Finally, we can use the fact that humans generally succumb to confirmation bias to our advantage by framing questions and stories about key events in our lives in ways that serve us. Armed with this information, I hope you will now proceed to go forth and crush it in life!