Most people in the world highly revere their brain – and why not? It is an incredibly sophisticated and helpful organ. The human brain is responsible for the Sistine Chapel, rockets that go to the moon, and the device on which you are reading this blog. Pretty amazing!
The brain also spouts nonsense and can cause a lot of mayhem in our lives, if left unchecked.
“Wait a minute! Whoa! But I thought the brain was the, well…the brains of the whole thing!” you might exclaim, with incredulity. I don’t blame you. Most of us have been at least indirectly taught that whatever floats through our gray matter is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Beep! Wrong. Thank you for playing!
Seriously, though, it is important to understand what this three-pound thing between our ears is actually meant to do. The answer might surprise you. There is a lot of fancy brain science to explain all this, but for simplicity, let’s use an analogy to try to understand.
Visualize yourself sitting in front of your home computer. Your computer has a central processing unit (CPU). You can think of your brain as your body’s CPU. As with any CPU, your brain stores data. Examples of brain data may be your experiences and perceptions, both internal and external (the software), and regular life-sustaining routines, such as breathing and heartbeat (the hardware). The CPU is accessed and managed by the “Executive Assistant” (or, the executive functioning portion of the frontal lobe). The Executive Assistant, or EA, can be thought of as the operating system that runs a particular set of programs. Thoughts and routine actions are the programs. If you want to take it a tad further, you can think of your experiences and perceptions as the code.
The EA is a rather big wig in this scenario, but it is not the boss. You know that, don’t you? Of course, the true star of the show is the Programmer. It is the Programmer who tells the EA what to do.
Your mind is the Programmer.
(There is a spirit involved as well, but that’s a story for another time).
Herein lies the problem, namely, most people are unaware of the distinction between the mind and the brain. They do not understand that much of the brain works on rules and algorithms and can be fairly detached from the present moment. Triggers and routines are how it does its job. On the other hand, the mind, working in conjunction with the EA, is flexible and can be aware of the present moment. However, when we do not engage the mind, the brain is left to run the show on autopilot. When new situations occur, the rules and algorithms may no longer apply, and Brain Babble ensues. Here is a real-life illustration of this.
In my work as a teacher of neuroscience principles, I often travel around the country. One time, I was in Texas, driving from Midland to Lubbock. Low and behold, there was a flash thunder storm. There were a few minutes where I thought I was a goner. Thankfully, a huge truck drove by and lead me out. Once I finally arrived in Lubbock, I drove around for nearly seventy-five minutes looking for food. Starving, I finally found a hole-in-the-wall place that sold catfish. I had never eaten catfish before, but there was a whole restaurant dedicated to it. Had to be pretty good, right? It was just what I needed…something great to end this difficult time.
I parked the car, peeled myself out from behind the steering wheel, went inside and sauntered up to the counter to give my order. In no time, I was on my way to my hotel with my dinner, hungry and anxious to try this new cuisine.
It tasted like mud to me.
In that moment, I heard the EA say, “Lubbock is terrible”.
Now, that thought was wholly inaccurate. There was no way my brain could have assessed all of Lubbock as “terrible” based on catfish (which may not even have come from Lubbock or been cooked by a Lubbockite). Nevertheless, having already been primed by a difficult day, the thought “felt right” and left me down in the dumps the rest of the night.
Flash forward a few weeks and I was in Rochester, New York. By the time I arrived, it was somewhat late in the evening. Again, I was in search of a place to have dinner and it was a little scary walking around in the twilight. While on my quest for food, I passed a place that had a sign in the window with the word “catfish” on it. In a similar fashion to before, I heard my brain say, “Rochester is terrible!”
Are you starting to see the problem? “Lubbock is terrible” and “Rochester is terrible” are examples of Brain Babble – unfounded judgments and decisions build on a rather binary system intended simply for efficient response in time of need for rapid response.
As my life was not in any danger in these situations, I did not need a quick reaction. Thankfully, the second time, I had the presence of mind to challenge the thought. I reminded myself of where I was and what I was doing and that all catfish in all places may not be bad and certainly catfish, whether good or bad, does not make an entire city “terrible”.
If I stick with my inaccurate assessment of Rochester and Lubbock, then if I am offered opportunities to return to either place in the future (or, for that matter, if I’m ever offered catfish again), I may decline. I may miss out on a great experience and may not even knowing why.
Does this sound familiar? Have you found yourself in similar situations? As you read this, can you recall times you heard your brain say something inaccurate for the current situation, but you believed it? What was the result?
Everyone deals with this, especially in our hectic, modern, overly-informed, fast-paced world. You may ask, “What’s a chap/lass to do?” Here are a few things you can try to begin to change this dynamic.
Spend time each day consciously attending to specific things with all your senses, especially one at a time. Notice the richness of the color of the flowers in your yard, the saltiness of the soup you are eating, or the coolness of the morning dew on your skin. Notice particularly the smell of the peach tea you have each night and the sound of the flute amidst all the other instruments in your favorite wordless tune. Practice this level of awareness so you will become familiar with how it feels to be present. Then, check in throughout the day to see how mindful you are at other times.
Learn about Cognitive Distortions
The good news is, unattended thinking happens in a very patterned way. Therefore, you can rather easily learn to recognize its distortions. We may engage in all-or-nothing thinking, mind reading, catastrophizing, personalizing, or a myriad of other thought errors.
Whenever something does not feel right, or you find yourself being judgmental, just stop. As an acronym, this is a concept from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which stands for: Stop; Take a step back; Observe the situation; and Proceed effectively.
If the very thought of trying these ideas leaves you feeling overwhelmed and defeated, that could be a signal that Brain Babble has been the major program running your life. If you find yourself lost and confused, you are not alone! If you want to find out how to become more mindful, please don’t hesitate to contact Potential Finders Network.
Written by book author, blogger, & educational/motivational speaker, Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP. Founder and owner of Potential Finders Network, Hannah provides consultation, training, and personal development services. Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. If you have topics you want to suggest, please don’t hesitate to contact her at Hannah@PotentialFinders.com and check out the website or Facebook to learn more.