Familiar story time. Go: Your eyes grudgingly blink open. You sigh at the thought of your precious sleep being interrupted. You stir, roll over and glance over at the clock. “$#*& !!!”
It’s 8:30. Your brain starts having an inner dialogue with the Caps Lock on because your alarm didn’t go off. “$#*& !!!”
Sheets go airborne. You have to be at work at 9:00 and you’re normally out of the door, showered, dressed and presentable by now. Oh god, oh god, oh god. Panic sets in. You’re already in your pants while feet are finding their way into shoes and fingers are finding their way to guide buttons on a shirt. Within 5 minutes you’re out the door, operating a motor vehicle and carrying a bagel around in your mouth like a golden retriever with a tennis ball.
Let’s break the above story down in brain speak. The hypothalamus woke up you up. Your cerebellum gave you attention and activated a procedural memory of checking the clock. When you saw the clock, your cerebral cortex engaged your attention and slapped you with some adrenaline. The cerebrum got you moving.
Before your attention begins to wane, the real question is … why did all this panic happen in the first place? In order to understand that, we must look into a section of our brain called the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe makes assumptions of future consequences by pulling the memories of previous actions and external influences. When you plan, predict and build intentions you can thank the frontal lobe. Basically, this part of your brain is constantly remembering what happened the last time you did X behavior and using that information to make an assumptive outcome on what to do next. If it helps, think of your frontal lobe like your internal Google, your memories are the search results and your intention is what you plan to do based on the findings. For example, in the story above, you likely have a memory (or more accurately a lot of memories) of the assumed consequences of being late.
So then it goes like this:
Stimulus: I’m going to be “Late to work”.
Recall: Your frontal lobe then quickly searches: “Being late to work”.
Results: About 1,382,382 results (.083 seconds) Top result:
“Being late to work is bad.” Source: WhereIWork.brain A blog entry about the last time your co-worker, John, was late and the female boss backhanded him with her ring hand.
This memory and many like it are then brought to the surface in a collaborative pattern. The most relevant one is at the top and when combined it is quickly (.08 seconds quick) added to the other results and converted into an intention of action. In this case, the action caused a chain reaction of panic and anxiety because the likelihood of arriving late to work became suddenly probable. Of course, in being late for work we should be thankful that we are motivated as it may have saved our job. In negative instances, however, where we may have traits we would like to distance ourselves from (fear, anxiety, procrastination etc..) we are hit with memories that cause the feelings that we experience. Understanding this is understanding that our minds live in the past. Breaking this down: past memories will prompt any new assumptions and those assumptions drive all of your future actions.
So what would happen if that memory didn’t exist? What if your internal Google returned zero results?
Ignorance Really is Bliss
To extrapolate the above question, let’s put ourselves into an experience where our frontal lobe arrives two different memories and the knowledge associations with each.
When you suddenly feel a sharp pain in your left arm you may be in two different camps regarding what to do next based on the memories your brain has already indexed. If you’ve been previously informed of heart attack symptoms you may begin to worry in alignment with those thoughts. Suddenly; panic, fear, anxiety and the chemicals associated with those emotions flood your brain. For further consideration of an “intellectual curse” you may be familiar with a more modern phenomenon called “cyberchondria” where like hypochondria, the person believes they are always ill, usually because they are overly informed.
Looking at this from another angle, lets say you’re not aware of common heart attack symptoms. Your internal Google will default to a first memory which could potentially be anything from pulling a muscle while working in the garden yesterday to that football injury you received in high school. Simply, the same fear brought on by the first example never occurred. Your search results were not conclusive enough to initiate a subconscious presumption of panic.
The outcome of this story is not important. If it helps you feel better, sure, it was totally the football thing the whole time. What is important, however, is using the example provided to help demonstrate how your subconscious brain reacted to the stimulus based on previous experience(s) and the associated knowledge brought to light (search results). Because of the way our minds work, by pulling associations from previous events, you are always living in the past. Even in new experiences, if you are being provoked by old memories, your motivations and intentions are not a part of the present. How do you live in the now?
By understanding the science outlined above, it helps us recognize that the outcome can be different even if our minds are forcing us into certain preconceived notions, assumptions, motivations and fears based on the subconscious search results of previous memories. As an example of “living in the now” your brain would instead consider:
“Just because you asked one girl out and she slapped you last time doesn’t mean that all girls will slap you and transversely, just because the last girl you asked out said yes doesn’t mean that the next one will either.”
The unfortunate aspect of this new line of thinking is that you must be overly observant (some call it mindfulness) in order to provoke it. Soon, if you use your frontal lobe as a guide instead of handcuffs, your mind suddenly changes. You have the power to veto any subconscious assumptions and you can be fearless as long as you are aware. The question then remains, is being fearless better than being fearful? The answer is the careful balance between anxiety and performance.
The Science of Being Ordinary
In 1908 scientists Yerkes and Dodson found out that a steady life creates steady performance. This is partially because our brains are stress averse they will make attempts to steer you away from (assumed) occurrences where the (assumed) outcome could cause stress, panic and anxiety. After prolonged behavior such as this we hit our comfort zone. Ahhh comfort zone. The words have sounded so cushy, friendly and warm ever since Judith Bardwick first used them back in 1991. Routines, patterns and predictable outcomes live here and chances are you do to. It’s a magical place where nothing is unexpected, fears never make an appearance, everything given can be achieved with small amounts of effort and life just … happens. Mmmm.
Damn that. What if you want to be in the mental place where you become your most powerful self and awesome things happen? If you’re asking yourself “Is there an awesome zone?”. Actually, YES. Let me help put the down payment on that place for you.
First, lets enter a cognitive phenomenon into our lexicon called optimal anxiety, (also Yerkes and Dodson, 1908) or:
… performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases. When levels are too low, performance decreases.
Thus, an outcome where your internal Google is simply unequipped to default a 100% positive outcome assumption. A challenge, or as some say, being out of your element, is going to cause cognitive stress because your internal Google is unable to accurately display assumed results. The amount of stress caused is dependent on (to beat a dead horse) the memory associated with prior outcomes. For example, if your boss says “Make this sale or you’re fired” it may cause your level to be too high to reap any benefit. However, if your boss provides you with a challenge of “You made five sales last month. This month I want eight.” Bam. Optimal anxiety. Finding something that is difficult to accomplish but not so difficult that it is impossible. The balance should be as likely of chance for both the positive and negative outcomes. This experience will then rewire you for future experiences.
In this spot, your performance and alertness goes up. In fact, your performance and alertness are very, very low if your mental arousal and anxiety states are either too low (cushy, warm comfort zone) or too high (panic, nerves). Like a bell curve, the slopes are the steps of worry on one side and the stairs of complacency on the other.
Get Ready to Expose Yourself
So now that we understand a comfort zone (on the left side of the above scale) is generally due to the subconscious refusal to take on difficult challenges because of unknown or expected negative outcomes. Allow me then to be the first person to say it’s not your fault if you don’t want to spend every day running up a hill. Challenges cause stress, our minds don’t like stress (and any possibility of an unknown future) so again, we become subconsciously challenge averse and over time. Again, not your fault.
Fears are a type of emotional memory that inhibit action because of the hard work the frontal lobe is doing all the time. If you have a memory of a predominantly negative instances rise to the top when your brain does its “search”, chances are you don’t want to do that action again. Also, if you’re being forced into that action panic happens well before the event even occurs. Statistically, a good example for most would be public speaking. Just the thought of it will likely cause many of you to have elevated heart rates and your brain steers you back into your comfort zone. The problem for modern man is that comfort kills productivity and therefore we have to find a low impact balance between stress and complacency.
How to Literally Change Your Mind
The scientific term for breaking out of your comfort zone is called exposure therapy and yes, while exposure therapy may be one option, it is simply tackling one problem at a time instead of tackling all the problems at once. Instead, lets use what we have learned here about memory patterns, our search brain and the subconscious results to our advantage. If packaged correctly we can use this science to add to our own mental arsenal. Do you remember the heart attack guy above that panicked simply because he was equipped with knowledge of heart attack symptoms? By understanding that your memories are subconsciously manipulating you, we can create a new memory that manipulates us positively and rise to the surface at will. In “You are the Placebo”, Dr. Joe Dispenza talks about how our minds are an underutilized tool in many of our battles with health and wellness. He further writes that sometimes simply obtaining a new set of knowledge can lead changing who you are by understanding the way your brain makes connections.
Therefore, according to Dr. Joe, what we are about to try will work as long as you are able to maintain it. Essentially what we are doing here is “search engine optimization” for you geek types. Or perhaps more appropriately, a Google AdWords advertisement that will be above every search result in the future. Visualize in your mind the ad going up there.
The advertisement reads:
Your “search brain” is potentially misleading your next move. Your current intention is only due to a pattern of previous memories. You have the power to veto memories that influence you.
There. With this, you should now be free to approach the girl across the room as if you’ve never struck out and also never won. That way you will have no fear of consequences holding you back nor the expectation of a win driving you forward aimlessly and without provocation. This is of course just an example as the advertisement is not simply reserved to wooing the opposite sex of course. Perhaps you can now talk confidently in front of a group of your peers.
It should be noted here, however, that snakes are still poisonous, wearing a seat belt is advised, clothes are required in public places, you cannot fly etc.. Also please note that this is not hypnotism because you are still completely in the drivers seat of recall with exception given to your subconscious mind and finally, this requires a small amount of recall in order for it to be effective.
So now that you find yourself equipped with this new outlook you could potentially conquer the world. Or, at minimum, be able to make the choice of freeing yourself of prior inhibitions long enough to make a solid attempt at it. So, what do you want to tonight, Pinky?
Pull Yourself Up
When I was a kid, maybe eight or nine, my grandfather had a poster on the wall in his basement workshop. I’m sure many of you have seen it before; a distressed fluffy kitten barely grasping from a branch while the idiom reads “Hang in there!”. I used to sit starting at that poster for far longer than I would like to admit. I have a memory of thinking very strongly:
You’re going to fall! Don’t just “hang in there”! The longer you stay there the more tired your little cat arms are going to get and the less likely you’re going to be able to pull yourself up! (or something like that)
Take what you have learned here and stop “hanging in there”. That is of course making the assumption that you want to use your little cat arms to get back up on the branch, climb across to safety and build yourself the most awesome Swiss Family Robinson style tree house the world has ever seen.
Memorize this pattern: Your decisions are first intentions. Your intentions are first memories. Memories are the past. The past can mislead the now and ruin what could have been.
P.S. If you liked this post then you’ll like my books as well. You can get them on Amazon.