“Of All the Creatures of Earth, Only Human Beings Can Change Their Patterns. Humankind Alone is the Architect of His or Her Destiny. The Greatest Revolution of My Generation is Knowing That Humans, by Changing Their Inner Attitudes of Mind, Can Change the Outer Aspects of Their Lives ” ~ William James
“A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” is a phrase which originated in the early 70s as part of the growing American vernacular emphasizing the importance of cross-cultural education.
To exist with an educated mind covers a broad spectrum. Most of us have undergone a minimum of 12 years of either public or private education, many having gone further to pursue secondary and post-graduate learning and/or training.
Yet our minds have also been trained in myriad other ways, beginning from our earliest days in our childhood homes. The messages we received, believed, and usually internalized as truth or fact were generally not subject to inquiry, debate or challenge. Children generally believe what they are taught and when the adults in their world were teaching through their own subjective lens of expectation and bias, children can grow into adults who are often living with limited ideas about themselves and life in general carried over from their past.
What is the quality of relationship you have with your mind? Is the mental activity and free-flow of information in your brain that shows up as your primary thoughts constructive, healthy, and motivated by your present-day self? Or do your daily thought processes diminish, judge, or limit you from experiencing a creative, constructive, productive, and proactive life?
Do you live with an undercurrent of mental anxiety and ambivalence around exploring new horizons, trying new things, or taking action due to fear of making a mistake? Is it your experience that your mindset is fixed rather than fluid and growth-oriented?
Are you allowing yourself the freedom to continually examine the thoughts being generated by your mind, deleting outdated ideas, and updating with new information that creates beliefs and behaviors more consistent with who you are today and your vision for the future?
What is this mind we all experience, take for granted, and frequently are at odds with?
“Mind is the flow of information within the brain; a synonymous term is mental activity,” writes Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, researcher in neuroscience, and author of multiple books including Resilient and Hardwiring Happiness.
Hanson specifies that most of this flow of information is unconscious. We are privy to what’s in the field of awareness because that’s what we’re conscious of. But Hanson writes “cultivating beneficial factors down in the basement of the brain, outside of conscious awareness, is actually more influential in the long run.”
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s quote emphasizes the above: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
This translates to noticing and interrupting the mental patterns that have been on auto-pilot. Further, be willing to develop and practice new patterns of mind that are in sync with the ways in which you prefer your life to unfold.
So, it’s estimated that the informational flow of mental activity being generated by the brain, much of which is unconscious (automatic) averages around 70,000 thoughts per day. And on average approximately 5% of those thoughts are new. Many of the thoughts we experience day in and day out are recycled thought processes that reiterate and repeat the ideas and beliefs we learned in the past and have carried into the present.
For many years I taught classes on healthy reprogramming of the mind. I routinely posed a simple question to the audience to demonstrate how an earlier life experience which shaped a belief is still being carried into the present and actually contradicts the current reality.
The question was “What color are yield signs?” The people in these audiences who were middle-aged and beyond would always answer that question with a resounding “Yield signs are yellow!”
When I revealed that yield signs are actually red and white BUT were yellow for decades until the Dept. of Transportation changed them in the early 70s, people could not believe it. They swore that they remembered seeing them as yellow and white when driving just yesterday.
The truth is they had internalized the belief about yellow yield signs when they learned to drive decades earlier because that was true for them at the time. But times changed and so did the color of the yield signs. Even though these people drive in the here and now and they regularly see the signs as red and white, when they asked their mental memory about this particular ‘fact’ they learned what was true at an earlier time in their life was no longer true today.
This is just one example of how important it is to routinely question what our minds tell us. What we learned in our past significantly colors what we believe today. You can see how detrimental this can be, especially if the past messages are diminishing our possibilities for learning, healing, renewal and regeneration.
The Brain’s Negativity Bias
There is a known negativity bias in the human brain. This is neither conscious or intentional; it is simply the result of our evolutionary hardwiring. Our earliest ancestors’ very survival depended on staying hypervigilant, moving through life ready to fight or flee, living fundamentally from a reality of eat or be eaten!
Biologists and brain researchers confirm that we inherited from the first humans on the planet that same part of the brain that is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is the amygdala which controls autonomic responses associated with fear, arousal, and emotional stimulation and has been linked to neuropsychiatric disorders, such as anxiety disorder and social phobias.
However, over billions of years our brains have also evolved to have capacities our earliest ancestors did not. Primarily we now have bigger brains in the frontal region which gives humans today the ability to have objective awareness versus a subjective attitude driven by fear and geared toward survival.
Thus, it is important that we all question how many of the fears and worries we routinely obsess about are real. The only two biological fears humans are born with are the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Every other fear is learned somewhere along the way, either through personal experience or what we were told by someone, usually of influence whose fear or anxieties we internalized as our own.
Our brain takes in the information from what we are thinking about most often, converts it into chemicals, and lets our whole body know if there’s trouble in the world or cause for celebration.
‘Neurons that fire together wire together’ aka Hebb’s Law, originated with Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist who was influential in the arena of neural psychology.
To explain Hebb’s Law, consider that the thoughts we think over and over, again and again, cause the neurons in our brains to fire together in specific patterns. These patterns become neural circuits, grooves in the brain, that begin to fire automatically and – voila – the genesis of a pattern.
Neural patterns reached a point of becoming automatic – this is what we know as a spontaneous habit. It’s something that happens without perspective or objective thinking, our minds automatically revert to the thought patterns that have become well-rehearsed.
The good news however is science has recognized the brain is neuroplastic. Neuroplasticity is a term that describes the capacity of the brain to create new neural connections and grow new neurons in response to new thoughts and experiences.
This means through greater self-awareness we all have the ability to identify thoughts that no longer serve us and replace them with ones that support our forward movement in life.
The burgeoning consensus among health care professionals in multiple disciplines recognizes how the quality of both mental and emotional health influences our physical states of health.
The staff at the renowned Mayo Clinic acknowledges how significantly a ‘glass half-full or half-empty’ attitude can influence a patient’s health and prognosis.
To reiterate, our repeated thought patterns are closely tied to what we learned and internalized early in life – taken from how we were conditioned to think, what we experienced repeatedly, and further strengthened by how we felt emotionally at that time. These became habits – habitual ways of thinking and reacting, which eventually became hardwired in our brains. William Wordsworth wrote: “Not choice, but habit rules the unreflecting herd…”
So how do we go about the seemingly overwhelming task of transforming the thousands of habitual thoughts that run aimlessly through our minds each day?
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates
The formula for updating our mental software and effectively changing our minds begins by developing greater self-awareness. Greater self-awareness builds from a mental attitude that is more expansive, curious, objective, fluid, and non-reactive. This catalyzes a deepening sense of internal peace over time.
If you are serious about changing your thoughts to work for you rather than against you, start making time for the following practices in your daily routine:
- Prioritize daily contemplation time. Even five minutes of simply sitting with your eyes closed, following your breath, is good training for a more peaceful mental state. Mornings are an especially good time to do this as it sets the intention and tone for the day to be reflective vs reactive.
- You may find that daily contemplation creates a foundation on which a regular meditation practice is developed. Daily mediation is widely-accepted as one of the cornerstones of mental, emotional, and physical health
- Don’t believe every thought you have is true! Anyone can learn the basics of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – a simple formula for learning how to change cognitive distortions (faulty thinking). The basic elements are:
- Identify your anxious, limiting, negating thought
- Realize the consequences of this thought, i.e., feeling bad and/or acting unskillfully. Challenge this thought (learn about some of the more common cognitive distortions, i.e., catastrophizing, over-personalizing, black/white thinking, etc.)
- Replace distorted thought with more constructive and/or proactive thoughts, ideas, beliefs, self-talk
- Imagine the possibilities! The language of the unconscious mind is image, symbolism, metaphor. Learn to use your imagination creatively and constructively even in the face of the opposite
- Positive envisioning is the ability to hold the unknown including the future in a fluid and constructive framework, trusting the organic unfolding of things.
- Exercise and strengthen the mental muscle of learning to accept what is happening for now, past or present, and tolerate any discomfort, frustration, or stress without getting triggered. This is the mark of a resilient and fluid mindset versus a fixed mindset that cannot change
- Become adept in scanning your body for where it feels tight, contracted, rigid, tense – and intentionally relax those areas. When thoughts are anxious there is almost always corresponding tension in the body. Physical contraction engenders mental contraction and vice-versa. Relax your body, relax your mind.
- Develop a practice of writing in a journal about the events in your life. As you notice certain repeating patterns, you can gradually shift the narrative in more constructive ways. The way we tell the stories through our writing delivers a powerful message to our minds about what is possible and what is not.
These are just a few of the abundance of effective tools and techniques for transforming your mental patterns. Experiment with some of them and explore others.
The quality of your mental health is parallel to your capacity for interpersonal competence, a sense of purpose, life satisfaction and agency for meaningful activity.
When we choose to update the software of our brains, our mental activity translates to thought processes that render us adaptive, flexible, and resilient in how we respond to challenging circumstances.
The capacity for creating more resourced, fulfilling, creative, engaged, and expansive life experiences lives within all of us. Our facility for this lies in cultivating ongoing self-awareness and aligning and orchestrating our thoughts toward higher purposes and creative ends.
I feel it is fitting to close this article with words of wisdom from Mahatma Gandhi:
“Carefully watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Manage and watch your words, for they will become your actions. Consider and judge your actions, for they have become your habits. Acknowledge and watch your habits, for they shall become your values. Understand and embrace your values, for they become your destiny.”