King Kong or Curious George?
Albert Einstein once said “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”
Twilight Zone episode #754. An unsuspecting shopper waits in the checkout line at the grocery store. Suddenly they are blindsided by an act of pure evil as the person in front of them takes a call on their cell phone. Our story revolves around a single human being struggling with perhaps the greatest challenge in human history. Our persecuted protagonist purposefully repeats silently in their mind “I’m not going to let this bother me, I’m not going to let this bother me.” Yet the scene fades out as our shopper drifts into insanity, unable to perform the seemingly simple task of changing how they feel.
One place where modern psychology and spirituality meet is this arena of controlling our daily thought patterns. What goes on in our mind seems to be both the cause and solution to most of our problems. However, what sounds like the simple task of changing what we choose to think about is actually very difficult. Our health, success, and relationships all revolve around a more positive centered mode of thinking.
Part One: Meet the Beast
Oddly enough, our mental beast is really in response to a literal beast. Much of the wiring in our brain was created specifically to best protect us from being eaten. The first problem we face due to this is that our rational brain is not really in control. We inherited the limbic system from birds and reptiles. This is referred to the “flight or fight” center and has huge survival benefit because it creates immediate and reflexive reactions. Also in this lower system is our amygdala which produces immediate emotional responses. Our logical brain (the prefrontal cortex) developed much later and actually does not even receive the information about what is going on until some time after the limbic system has kicked in. Consequently, most of our thoughts are reactive and emotional. It takes some amount of concerted effort and discipline to logically regulate them. My personal opinion is that our logical brain is mostly used to justify our emotional beliefs rather than challenge them.
The second big disadvantage that was created by our need for survival is that we evolved a bias towards negativity. Take the scenario where there is a large bush and the possibility that there may be a lion behind it. We were far more likely to survive if we expected the worst. If you think there is a lion behind a bush and you are wrong, your ego may take a hit but you still get to live. However, if you do not think there is a lion behind the bush and you happen to be wrong, then you will likely die. There was much less evolutionary advantage to happy thoughts as there was towards negative ones. Author and researcher Rick Hanson describes the brain as “velcro to the negative, and teflon to the positive.”
Additionally, our brains strengthen and deepen patterns through repetition. So without structured and intentional examination, our beliefs continually get entrenched deeper and stronger as we get older. Consequently we may feel that we are gaining wisdom and our certainty increases, but in reality we’re digging a deeper rut which makes it more and more difficult to challenge any particular way of thinking.
Finally, our culture today essentially trains us into a chronic state of low grade fight or flight. Just turn on the news, have a political discussion, or see any form of advertisement that infers you are at risk, or inadequate in some way. Long term flight or fight is very unhealthy because it pushes the blood to the larger muscle groups at the expense of our immune system and our brain. No harm done when you need to quickly run from a tiger, but when it becomes ongoing it actually makes us sicker and dumber.
So there you have it. Our brain is literally wired to make us stubborn, pessimistic, morons, wired for emotional reaction. So what can we do about it? The answer can be found in Part Two: Happily Ever After and can be found on page xx in the follow up article to this one. For a more robust and scientific explanation of the preceding material, I suggest you check out the work of Bruce Lipton and Rick Hanson. You can find free material from both of them on Youtube.
Part Two: Taming the Beast
Treat your brain like you would your body. Think of it as diet and exercise. Stay away from junk food. The news and much of what we see in social media are geared towards strong emotional reaction. If you are interested in social justice then do something specific. But if all the subject does is cause you to ruminate and dwell in a negative space, then you are doing nobody any good. Be wary of the low grade flight or fight response. Most of Facebook is begging for a fight. Next, look to feed yourself good food. Make a concerted daily effort to list “good things” no matter how small they may be. Consciously spend time celebrating them and wallowing in the feeling. If you got to work on time, then take note. If you did the dishes give yourself some kudos for the accomplishment. It may sound condescending, but what you are doing is training the brain to spend more time feeling good. Don’t get caught up in the idea that something needs to be significant enough to warrant a good feeling.
The next piece is exercise. Adopt a mindfulness practice. Meditation, yoga, tai chi etc… anything that trains your brain to focus is helpful. There have been studies that show meditation actually improves the ability of the prefrontal cortex to mitigate the limbic reactions. The purpose of mindfulness training is to take time to slow or even stop the “monkey mind”. Once you have gained experience slowing or stopping the chatter you can then try to introduce the essence of positive feelings. The ultimate goal is the feeling. Simply trying to push out negative thoughts by repeating positive affirmations can actually have the opposite effect if you don’t truly believe them. You cannot lie to your own brain. Between the diet and exercise these practices will help slow down the monkey mind. They help us spend less time ruminating on imaginary conversations. They free up our mind to be rational and for the spiritual folks, it helps quiet the noise which interferes with our intuition.