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What is your brain thinking?

In the past several decades, psychologists and other social scientists have gained a better understanding of the impact of our thoughts on our emotions, behaviors, and outcomes in life. We now know that it is our thinking about circumstances (i.e., our perception and cognitive interpretation of circumstances) that colors our experience of those circumstances – not the circumstances themselves.

Circumstances are objective and unchangeable, while thoughts are subjective and malleable, as well as variable from one person to another. Two people can experience the exact same circumstance but because of the way they think about it, have entirely different feelings, actions and outcomes as a result. For example, two people could be sitting on the same beach under the same sun in the same 85 degree weather (circumstance) and one person might be happy because they are thinking about how beautiful the ocean is, while the other person might be unhappy because they are thinking about how loud and annoying the birds are.

With this knowledge of the relationship between circumstances and thoughts, a person might be quick to say, if it’s not a circumstance that makes me feel or act a certain way, but my thoughts, then why don’t I just change my negative thoughts to positive ones, or get rid of the negative ones?

It's not quite that straightforward.

To explain, I’d like to provide a brief and extremely simplified lesson in cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology.

(Note: I usually like to be painstakingly thorough and accurate, but my ultimate goal is for this information to be useful, so I’m challenging myself to keep it simple and therefore more applicable in daily life.)

So here goes.

Our brain does lots of stuff. (See, I said it would be simple!)

It helps us walk, talk, breathe and sleep. It helps us learn and remember things. It helps us pay attention to one thing, and shift our attention when necessary. It helps us perceive the things we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. It helps us love, it helps us hate.

It also performs a very important task we call thinking.

We sometimes refer to the thinking aspect of our brain as our “mind”. Our mind is constantly busy. Thoughts are being generated by our mind at a crazy fast rate – researchers estimate we have around 50,000 thoughts a day.

Because these thoughts are always going, and always have been since we can remember, we just kind of identify with them. We accept them as true.

But that’s not always in our best interest.

So it’s important to know that we are not our mind. Our mind is a tool, it is working for us, but its hardware is kind of outdated, and therefore it doesn’t always serve us.

Some parts of our brain have been around in our genus/species for a long time. We can call these parts the “primitive brain”. Our cavemen ancestors had these parts of the brain, and it’s what helped them survive and thus evolve.

Eventually they developed more sophisticated parts of the brain, and we can call these parts the “modern brain” (again, major simplification here, but I promise this is all based on real science, with big words and complicated concepts). The modern brain really set us apart from other animals. It helped us envision possible future scenarios, think about the past and the future, weigh different possibilities before making a decision, plan an action, wait before acting, etc.

This modern brain does some pretty awesome stuff, but because of that, it takes more time and energy to do its work. So a lot of the time, our primitive brain gets messages to us more quickly.

This is where the outdated hardware issue comes into play. A lot of our thoughts are generated by our primitive brain. And our primitive brain is still thinking we are living in a cave and that we need to feast on as much sugar and carbohydrates as possible, not leave the cave if at all possible, and not piss anybody off, or else we will almost certainly die. (Think about prehistoric times – food was not readily available, sugar/carbohydrates gave you energy, and leaving the cave or ostracizing yourself from your tribe would equal death.)

The primitive brain has not yet gotten the memo that we are essentially at the top of the food chain, we have regular access to food, we generally don’t have predators outside of our homes trying to eat us, and we can have different opinions from other people – and generally do different things than other people do – and not die as a result.

So the primitive brain is still generating these thoughts, and we often are reacting to these thoughts and believing these thoughts even though they’re not actually helpful.

This is where you can start to see that you are not your brain, or even your mind. Your mind is doing its own thing— trying to help you, yes, but not necessarily generating thoughts that you would choose if you were your mind.

And you can’t just tell your primitive brain or your mind to stop having those thoughts. It’s not the way it works. It is still going to be there, it is doing what it is doing. It is not always helpful even though it was originally built to be.

Fortunately, with knowledge comes power. Just knowing that you are not your mind – that you are not your thoughts, that your brain generates thoughts and you don’t have to identify with them, and you can decide which ones are useful – is hugely powerful.

And this is where mind management comes in. You can’t get your mind to stop generating thoughts, but you can learn how to manage those thoughts.

The first step of mind management is just being aware that the brain functions this way. You need to understand that many, if not most, of your thoughts on a daily basis are generated by the brain, and are not purposefully created by you. When you know this, then you can start to become more aware of the thoughts your brain is generating, and you can start seeing which ones are helpful for you and which ones are not.

You are simply noticing your thoughts at first, and realizing that they are just that – thoughts. Sentences in your brain. By doing this, you are starting to provide some supervision of your brain or your thinking mind. You are observing rather than “fusing” with those thoughts. You are separating yourself from your thinking mind. You can’t be your thoughts if you are watching your thoughts.

At this stage, many people want to jump in and “change” their thoughts. They realize how many unhelpful thoughts are being generated, and they want to get rid of them. They also can find themselves getting in a power struggle or argument with them.

I encourage you not to do this. This first step is all about watching, observing. It’s a really important step. There are a few strategies that various psychologists have recommended that I think are great for this stage. For example, when you notice a thought, you can observe to yourself, “I’m having the thought that…”. So if you notice the thought, “I’ll never actually have the guts to start a business,” you simply observe, “I’m having the thought that I’ll never actually have the guts to start a business.”

That’s it. It’s simple, but it can make a huge impact, because it is getting you in the habit of stepping away from thoughts – and down the road, that stepping away will allow you to decide whether you want to fuse with the thought and act on the thought, or not.

Another strategy, which might sound kind of silly, but which really does the trick for me, is to thank your mind when it generates a thought. So if you notice the thought we discussed above, “I’ll never actually have the guts to start a business,” you simply say, “Thanks mind!” (Okay, you don’t have to say it out loud, you can just think it. :-) ) This also serves as a reminder that your brain is always trying to be useful and work for you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that thought is useful or helpful. It also reminds you that you are not your brain or your thoughts generated by your brain.

As you increase your awareness of your thoughts, you can start to be more deliberate about which thoughts you “fuse” with – which thoughts you focus on, identify with, believe—and which thoughts you would rather not “fuse” with. Again, it’s important not to get into a power struggle with the thoughts; you are simply knowing they are there, acknowledging them, and knowing that you don’t have to “fuse” with all of them.

I use the strategies outlined above, and I find them incredibly empowering and liberating. It’s amazing how many stories we have developed about ourselves and our capabilities based on thoughts that have been generated by our mind.

I realize that just reading these strategies might make you think (or your mind might generate the thought that) it’s too simple to have much of an impact. But if want to have more control over your emotions, actions, and outcomes in life, mind management is an incredibly important first step. So give it a try this week and let me know what insights you achieve.


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