Do you make the mistake of believing everything you think? Do you trust your brain to think the best thoughts for you? Do you trust that your thoughts are your own?
If you answered no to even one of these questions, congratulations! You are on your way to self-mastery! It is a tremendous accomplishment to have a healthy skepticism toward your own brain.
Perhaps you know people who believe everything they think, who are sure their brains are thinking the best thoughts, and who are absolutely sure their thoughts are their own. You might find these people charming in their self-satisfaction and surety, but I find them alarming. Maybe it is because, as a psychotherapist, I get to see the people whose lives they are trying to control.
Give me a person riddled with self-doubt any day. They are nicer, kinder, and generally speaking, more open to learning something new. The self-doubter knows better than to completely trust his or her own brain, and that’s a great place from which to start any journey of self-enlightenment.
To objectively assess reality, the brain needs to question itself and its motives, as well as whatever is going on around it. This is because the brain is a slush file for all kinds of stuff that other people dumped into it when we were very young, not to mention the things that advertising, neighbors, and spouses might have added. Any learning that occurred when we were emotionally aroused for any reason is likely to stick, whether it helps us now or not.
Our brain’s alarm center, the amygdala, will push the panic button whenever we see anything that once scared us. The amygdala does not know that things have changed since childhood, and it does not care. Once learned, the amygdala never willingly drops a file.
As a result, the amygdala can confuse us about what is dangerous and what is safe. It all depends on our childhood experiences. For instance, if emotional intimacy led to hurt as a child, the amygdala will make sure we feel very uncomfortable whenever people get too close later. The amygdala has zero discernment. It is simply a file cabinet of adrenaline-driven memories. But if you are not wise to it, it can run your life into the ground.
In addition to the false-alarm problem, the brain has a bad habit of laziness. The brain loves to keep thinking the same thoughts over and over again. It likes efficiency and keeps a strict economy of effort. You might disagree, saying that your brain works overtime with worry, obsessing, and disaster fantasies. But just as a rock rolling downhill would look plenty active if you didn’t know about gravity, the brain is simply following the principle of least resistance. It can stay on a subject forever if it is on the downward slope of familiar thinking.
The brain sits in its blacked out skull-box and has no idea (literally) of what is going on in the outside world. All it cares about is which parts of your mind you are using frequently. If you are worried a lot, or looking for love a lot, the brain figures these must be essential survival activities. Whether those types of thoughts are good for you is not the brain’s concern. That is why you cannot always trust what your brain is doing. Once it gets used to a familiar thought loop, it wants to keep it up solely because it is so effortless.
When we use certain brain pathways frequently, the brain insulates these neuronal tracks with myelin, a fatty tissue that, like rubber around a copper wire, makes electrical brain impulses zing. Those myelinated pathways become super-efficient and effortless. This pays off big time in playing tennis or learning videogames; the more you do it, the faster and better you get. But if the activity is worry, or obsessing, or even suspicion, the brain wraps those lines, too. Because this efficient use of well-traveled pathways feels so good to the brain, we think these thoughts must be important. But the real reason it feels so natural is because the brain loves to save energy!
If a bad idea got into your head early in life, the brain may over-use it to the point of making it extremely easy to think that way later. Personal psychological growth is all about encouraging the brain to do something it naturally wants to avoid. But just as we can learn things at any age, we can change our brains with conscious effort. After a while the new pathways will get myelinated, too, making it easier and easier to override the amygdala’s panicked yappings and do something more suited to present time and circumstance.
To practice a new way of thinking takes effort and time, but it pays off. The frontal cortex of the brain can stop the amygdala dead in its tracks with a well-aimed refusal to keep going down that old path. You can decide to think differently. The brain may resist you, activating the old pathways as soon as your back is turned. But you can repeat the correction, and talk yourself into a new line of thought. You just have to remember that the amygdala is a drama queen who likes to throw a fit when you try to change it.
Know your brain, and don’t let its fear or laziness dictate how limited your life is going to be. The higher centers of your brain are ultimately stronger than the amygdala and can bring it under control. Like an old horse heading back to a barn that is no longer there, the brain needs you to pull the reins.
Healthy self-doubt shows a willingness to think about your thoughts. Questioning the origins of your habitual thoughts is the first step toward a new life. What a world we would have if instead of trying to boss other people, we all tried for mastery of our own minds.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.