What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind.” ~ The Buddha (maybe)
While the Buddha may have said that over 2,500 years ago, today’s neuroscience is helping us to understand the mind’s complex hard-wired mechanisms with stunning speed.
A study, conducted by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto showed that most of us are not consciously focused and are on “auto-pilot” 46.9% of the time. Our minds are wandering, not attentive to the tasks at hand or on immediate outside experience, instead we’re looking into our own thoughts.
So where are we when we are there – and not here?
Let’s start with a little primer on the so-called mind. According to Psychology Today, the unconscious is “where most of the work of the mind gets done. It’s the repository of automatic skills (riding a bike), the source of dreams, intuition and the engine of much of our information processing.” It is where we store the beliefs and thoughts that are often too uncomfortable to handle emotionally.
Some of us tend to think of the unconscious as a “black hole of unacceptable impulses,” dark, imposing and out of control. Think of the unconscious as the warehouse of your “habits of mind,” which contain past memories and associated experiences that continue to fire neurons that keep it active and in the “present,” but out of your conscious awareness.
When we act on “auto-pilot” our behavior tends to become repetitive. On one hand, auto-pilot functioning is the brilliance of the brain at work. We don’t have to learn certain things over and over again. I can type this post without having to focus (much) on the mechanics of typing, rather I can concentrate on the content of the material at hand.
The down side of this smart brain functionality is that our thought patterns become hard-wired through repetition. Repetitive thinking and behavior reinforces existing neural networks – so what we continuously do, say, think, etc. tends to strengthen (literally thicken) our brain’s hard- wiring.
When we are operating with conscious awareness, we are always breaking new ground neurally because we are generally learning (even the slightest nuance) something new. We literally form new cells (neurons) every time we shift our thinking in new directions.
I still look to Freud who defined the conscious mind as including everything that is inside of our awareness. When we activate our conscious awareness we take ourselves off of aut0-pilot and engage the rational functions of the pre-frontal cortex of our brain.
How We Process Experience
Author David Rock described two distinct systems humans use to interact with the world.
The first system, called the “default network,” is the home of auto-pilot. It happens when you are mostly idle (relatively speaking) and you think about yourself. This example illustrates it well – you’re sitting on a beach on your vacation, it’s a lovely day and there’s a nice breeze cooling you off from the sun. Nice picture, right? But for many of us, we’re not sitting there in the present moment, relishing the experience, taking it in – we’re off thinking about what time we should be back and how much more or less vacation time we have left.
According to Rock, “When you experience the world using this default (narrative) network, you take in information from the outside world and process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretation. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze isn’t a cool breeze, it is a sign that summer will be over soon.”
The other way of interacting with your world is through direct experience. Studies show more regions of the brain are activated when we are in this mode. You are literally more aware, taking in a far greater range of information through your senses in real time. You are as they say – out of your head and into your experience.
When we’re on auto-pilot we can often go through an entire experience without any real recollection of how we felt or the details of what happens. We are as the term goes, “phoning it in.” It’s only when something out of the norm occurs that we break through auto-pilot and that often is happening externally and not of our own volition.
People make phone calls, conduct meetings, send emails and give reports and they are just not there – where are they? Does it matter?
It matters if you want to be less reactive to external events and circumstances.
It matters if you want to develop more emotional balance in response to outside situations.
It matters if you want to be more attentive, achieve greater concentration and more focus.
It matters if you want to take in more information and experience more fully
It matters if you want to show others that you are listening, caring, interested, concerned and empathic.
Being Mindfully Aware is Different from Being Aware
Much is being written about mindfulness these days. Several significant studies have demonstrated the positive impact of mindfulness “practice” on mental, emotional and physical well-being.
Because of its roots in religious and metaphysical practices, many people associate being mindful with meditation. While mindfulness meditation is a valuable practice – learning to become more mindfully aware doesn’t require you to sign up for any spiritual or religious beliefs.
Take this example – Imagine that I ask you to look at your right foot. In doing this, I am essentially asking you to become aware of your right foot, which you may not have been before I brought it to your attention. In this act you become conscious of your right foot. The question becomes what happens in your thinking when you look at your foot (or anything). Do you notice what is wrong with your foot?
When we bring mindful awareness to anything, we are in fact, aware of how we are experiencing what we see, hear, feel, etc. We are aware of the judgments – the perceptual filters – we are bringing to the experience. In doing this, we are more able to control the reactiveness of our responses. We notice what we notice. We take in a greater field of information. We are aware that we are aware. If we feel something (annoyance that our foot’s not that attractive) we are aware of that feeling without being “caught” in the emotion.
Dr. Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor and Co-Director of the UCLA Center for Mindful Awareness Research, has been a pioneer in understanding the neurobiology of mindfulness. He defines mindful awareness as “a kind of focused attention on the workings of our own mind. It helps us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them. It enables us to get ourselves off of auto-pilot and the ingrained behaviors and habituated responses and takes us beyond the reactive emotions that we have a tendency to get trapped in.”
It’s estimated that we humans have about 60,000 thoughts a day. Auto-pilot works perfectly well for many of the tasks we must carry out every day. But remember that many, if not most (depending on your level of awareness) are dredged up (automatically) from your unconscious old software. These thoughts produce feelings and behavior patterns, some of which are unhelpful and do not support who we are today – and where we want to be in the future.
Changing Unwanted Auto-Pilot Reactivity
Whether you are aware of it or not, your brain is performing an amazing set of actions every moment that is literally reshaping it as you think. Known as “neuroplasticity,” the brain reorganizes pathways based on new experiences. Every time you memorize a fact, learn something new – think a new thought – neural networks are being reconfigured. This incredible process responds to every image, concept and feeling you have.
Because of this remarkable science we now know that your ability to be more mindfully aware plays a significant role in reshaping your neural architecture. Just as the therapist works with a client to make what is unconscious, conscious, when you take yourself off of auto-pilot responses, you are rearranging your mental, emotional and physical systems.
It is possible, through practice, to turn off your unwanted auto-pilot responses. You’re building new neural circuitry every time you do. It takes time, especially with deeply ingrained behaviors and emotional triggers. Keep in mind that every time you do, you reinforce the new neural pathway. That is why repetition is so important.
A few tips….
Victor Frankl’s flawless quote illuminates the benefits of mindful awareness perfectly – “Between the stimulus and the response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
Thanks for reading.