Rewire Your Brain: Imaginary Problems!
How do we handle the human mind’s ability to create endless and continual problems… especially in the areas that we care about most, like our love lives! From a scientific perspective, the approach is largely to shut the mind off. We will explore how this is accomplished, and how to overcome resistance to releasing the thinking mind.
We tend to believe what we think. Neuroscientists and cognitive behaviorist psychologists call this “cognitive fusion”. Spiritual traditions call this “delusion”. The reality is that Reality itself cannot be accurately perceived through a thought; at best you get a perspective, a story, one point of view. Our stories and own personal myths are exactly that, stories and myths. Today’s topic focuses on what scientists and scientific psychologists tell us to do with all that thinking when we know it’s gone astray and yet it seems to have a life of it’s own. Let’s look at the brain for the answer.
The old brain and the new brain are layered on top of each other. They used to say that there were three brains: the reptilian, mammalian and human brain. The center and bottom of our brains are much older in evolutionary terms and much more common among living beings. The neo-cortex, the big mass of gray matter on top that human’s have, is relatively new and unique in both in quantity and function.
The new brain allows us to do what we call thinking. The new brain creates a new mind. The new mind provides a breakthrough in perspective taking and in self-reflection. Perspective is the ability to reflect on something and self-reflect, to look at things from different points of view, including oneself. It goes without saying that this is incredibly useful. What is less commonly acknowledged is that it is, at least potentially, equally dangerous. Just think of some of the nasty thoughts you’ve had about yourself or the people you love or the creation of nuclear weapons. Believing all those thoughts, which we are prone to, is what scientists mean by “cognitive fusion”.
Whatever that new brain comes up with in it’s unfathomable computations, formulations, strategies, story telling, and so on, gets sent to the old brain. Those stories and interpretations get sent to the more animal brain, the brain that adds emotional charge, emotional valence, makes us feel some way about it. That middle brain, where the amygdala is located could be called the feeling brain. We make ourselves feel a lot of ways by what we think. What have you been telling yourself about your life, your body, your job, and so on, today? There is no moral right or wrong about it, but if you thoroughly investigate what goes through your mind you will find it has about as much accuracy and truth as our dreams do, it is just more rationalized. Current scientific dream research focuses less on the symbols of dreams and more on the parallel between the person’s waking life and dream life. When we are dreaming we usually don’t know that we are dreaming. When we are thinking we also don’t usually know that we are dreaming.
After the content is created and sent to the old brain, the old brain… feels it. As we’ve learned in this series, the old brain is getting direct input from the environment, and operating in a very automatic and elementary manner. It takes that input and controls our nervous system and engages in a very elementary type of thinking that is better described as creating basic associations between events. It takes it’s input and engages in a very basic type of conditioning, often associated with “Pavlovian conditioning” (if bells ring when food is served, we start salivating when we hear bells!).
But, the old brain is also getting information, a whole other world of information, from the new brain, our thinking brain. The old brain is getting our stories fed to it. So the old brain is getting external input from the environment, and internal input from the new brain (as well as it’s own elementary past based associations and instinctive programming.)
For example, if you are in the presence of someone of the opposite sex, your old brain might have you feeling a little nervous or excited based on past associations. The new brain is likely making up a story about the whole thing and can leave you feeling that “this is your one and only and you better grab on for dear life” or that “they will go away” or “I don’t know what to do” or “If I marry this person all my problems will be solved”, which can send the experience in an infinite number of directions! The direction those stories lean toward is fear based, for a variety of reasons, including how our childhoods have gone and the fact that fear is very conserved in the conditioning process (as discussed previously).
From our series so far, we know how to work with the old brain… calm it down. We know this is the first line of defense in dealing with the problems the brain creates. By simply calming down, in all the ways we have discussed (deep breathing and so on) we will quickly feel better and less anxious about whatever we are dealing with. So if you are about to go on an important date with someone and you take the time to calm down beforehand statistically you are much more likely to “perform” better on that date.
How to work with the new brain, the complex forebrain thinking machine, is our focus today. Interestingly, scientists and ancient spiritual teachings are in harmony as to what to do with our problematic thoughts. The recommendation is basically to turn off, or not use, the new brain; at least in the sense of not creating alternative virtual realities that we project outwards. Since we tend to believe that we are our thoughts, positions and perspectives on things, it can feel like we will somehow stop existing or lose something if we stop our thinking mind. Basically, the ego resists not thinking! We are identified with our self-images, and our thoughts, so it takes some concentration and a regular practice to discover that we actually find our true selves, our presences, when we disengage from the thinking mind creating it’s virtual world.
This world creation is a very taxing activity and creates all sorts of problems. It is taxing biologically (the brain uses a lot of energy for example) and can leave us in a stress state depending on what world we are creating with our minds. It is the opposite of being present. We can send our old brain into a terrible state of reactivity with the stories we tell ourselves.
For example, the meter on my electric bike battery was showing that the battery kept draining. I love that bike and ride it all the time. I decided something was terribly wrong. I tried ordering a big new expensive lithium ion battery, and then a big new charger. I was on the phone a lot problem solving- I was really anxious about it! Really what was going on was the meter reading the battery charge simply needed to be reset. It wasn’t a big deal. But I was driving myself crazy with the stories and negative forecasting. The bike and battery itself was functioning perfectly the whole time. The story I was telling myself was false and driving me crazy. Even if the worst-case scenario were true and the bike was totally shot, it didn’t warrant how upset I was making myself with these stories and the acrobatics I was going through trying to fix this imaginary problem.
But if we practice what is recommended across traditions and disciplines and sciences of various types, we end up basically turning the thinking mind off, meditating or directly perceive the environment without adding anything. Science and spirituality say stop conceiving and start perceiving. It is very simple actually, but it is not necessarily easy. Psychological inquiry can be complex and can be helpful if the person does not engage in over-processing and thus reinforcing issues, but “non-thinking” (as the Zen Buddhists call it) is simple… It just takes everything you’ve got!
So what practices work to shut off the overthinking brain?
Notice that the calming practices for the old brain also have the effect of shutting off the mind from creating stories and internal reactivity within the being. The practices we have been emphasizing in the series so far (deep slow breathing, progressive relaxation, exercise and meditation) tend to stop us from thinking. For example, in Yoga, deep slow breathing is used to stop the “monkey mind,” as well as to calm down. We now know that these practices are actually working on different parts of the brain in different ways.
In emergencies, if your brain won’t stop, today’s scientists have created the “Stop” method, which is simply to vehemently say “Stop” when your mind in driving you crazy. Then put your attention on something else! I recommend something fun… and sexy!