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You want to get to work but instead you surf the internet. You want to diet but instead you eat enough candy to give an entire 2nd grade classroom type 2 diabetes. Why?
You might think you lack self-control. Or that you make bad decisions. But none of these explanations ever seems to get to the bottom of why what-you-think and what-you-do all too frequently don’t line up.
What the heck is going in your brain that causes these inconsistencies? Sometimes it’s almost like you’re 2 different people. Or 3. Or 19.
There’s a very simple answer: you are 19 different people. Or 4. Or 107. But what you aren’t is one person. Yeah, sounds crazy, I know. Stay with me…
Over 1000 years ago Buddhism — where mindfulness techniques come from — said that there is no singular “you.” The “self” does not exist. Sound like crazy nonsense? I’m with you. (All 27 of you, actually.) But here’s the thing…
Both neuroscience and psychology are starting to agree. Sometimes you don’t act like you because there is no singular “you.”
And this positively perplexing proposition holds the answer to why you do dumb things, procrastinate, can’t follow through on your goals, and why some days it seems like everyone – including you — is a total hypocrite.
Strap in — we’re gonna turn everything you know about your grey matter upside down and give you a completely new way of looking at your mind and how it works. Of course, we’ll also cover how to address this issue and start getting your act together.
Alright, enough foreplay. It’s time for me and you (and you, and you and you) to get to work…
Walt Whitman, You Do Contain Multitudes
There is no “you.” There are a lot of yous in your head. But do legit scientists really agree with such a seemingly ridiculous statement? Here’s Duke psychology professor Dan Ariely:
…our models of human behavior need to be rethought. Perhaps there is no such thing as a fully integrated human being. We may, in fact, be an agglomeration of multiple selves.
What we’re talking about is the cutting edge theory of the “modular mind.” (Okay, it’s old news to Buddhist monks but cutting edge to the rest of us.)
The human brain wasn’t built top to bottom as a single project like Apple builds a computer. It evolved over millions of years in a very messy fashion. Various systems (or “modules”) came about to drive you to accomplish different tasks like seeking food, fighting, reproduction, etc. But here’s the problem…
They were never integrated. So these systems compete to steer the ship that is your brain. Your mind is less like a single computer operating system and more like a collection of smartphone apps where only one can be open and running at a time.
Here’s noted science author Robert Wright:
In this view, your mind is composed of lots of specialized modules—modules for sizing up situations and reacting to them—and it’s the interplay among these modules that shapes your behavior. And much of this interplay happens without conscious awareness on your part. The modular model of the mind, though still young and not fully fleshed out, holds a lot of promise. For starters, it makes sense in terms of evolution: the mind got built bit by bit, chunk by chunk, and as our species encountered new challenges, new chunks would have been added. As we’ll see, this model also helps make sense of some of life’s great internal conflicts, such as whether to cheat on your spouse, whether to take addictive drugs, and whether to eat another powdered-sugar doughnut.
Now modules aren’t physical structures in the brain, just like apps aren’t hardware in your phone. They’re software; the human nature algorithms that Mother Nature coded over thousands of generations of evolution.
So you want to diet but you see donuts and your brain’s hunger module (like the “Grubhub” app) hjacks control and says, “Food! Eat it. Now.” Or you want to be nice but your mind’s anger app (“Angry Birds”) takes charge and you’re saying things another app is really going to regret tomorrow. You’re like a walking live performance of Pixar’s “Inside Out.”
Now this isn’t as alien as it might sound. When you do something while drunk or tired what’s the phrase you often pull out? “I wasn’t myself.”
Yeah. Exactly. Upside: you can now use the royal “we” to describe yourself.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
So how do we prevent hijacking by the wrong module at the wrong time and make better decisions? First we need to learn how those inappropriate modules get hold of your steering wheel…
Feelings. Nothing More Than Feelings.
Whichever module has the most emotional kick attached to it at any point wins the competition to be “you.”
You see a pizza commercial and it stirs up feelings of hunger and that “Grubhub” app hijacks control. Then you see someone attractive, feelings stir in your nether regions, the “Tinder” app takes charge and your brain is under new management yet again.
Under this lens, many of the confusing and frustrating things about human behavior start to make a lot of sense:
- Of course people are hypocritical. They’re made up of competing “selves” with very different goals and different information. Uncle Al is the most reasonable guy in the world — unless his “politics module” takes charge.
- Are people good or bad? They’re both. The metaphorical angel on one shoulder and devil on the other are just different modules in the brain with different motivations.
- Those emotional persuasion techniques? They’re an attempt to switch the other person’s dominant module. To get them to go from that competitive Chess app to something more friendly like Facebook.
- Why do you lack self-control? Because now the word doesn’t make any sense. It’s actually “selves-control.” Your behavior isn’t inconsistent; the “you” in charge is inconsistent.
Some modules are designed to gather benefits, others are designed to deliver benefits, and they exist in the same head, sometimes in conflict. In the same way, this analysis does away with the question of whether individual acts are “really” self-interested. Different kinds of acts advance the goals that some, but not other, modules are designed to bring about. So, both meanings of “self-interest” seem to be a problem because different modules have different designs, and are therefore built to bring about different outcomes.
I had a girlfriend named Natalia who, whenever she got caught doing something naughty, would smirk and say, “That wasn’t me. That was Natasha.” I would roll my eyes but it turns out Natalia knew a lot more about neuroscience than I did. (Um, or Natasha did. Whatever. You get the point.)
You’re often a slave to your emotional reactions to the world around you. You react to your context with feelings, those give one module more power than another, and that one hijacks decision-making in your brain…
Until new feelings are stirred up and another module takes charge. And this happens over and over and over all day long.
Here’s Robert Wright:
The human brain is a machine designed by natural selection to respond in pretty reflexive fashion to the sensory input impinging on it. It is designed, in a certain sense, to be controlled by that input. And a key cog in the machinery of control is the feelings that arise in response to the input. If you interact with those feelings… via the natural, reflexive thirst for the pleasant feelings and the natural, reflexive aversion to the unpleasant feelings—you will continue to be controlled by the world around you.
Your brain is like a car with a terrible automatic transmission. Any car fanatic knows if you want total control, you want a stick shift. You want to be able to choose which gear is engaged to best suit the current challenges ahead.
But you have this horrendous automatic transmission and so often your brain is in 1st gear on the highway and in 5th gear backing out of a parking spot and the results are far from what you desired.
(To learn the 3 secrets from neuroscience that will make you emotionally intelligent, click here.)
So how can we replace your automatic transmission with a nice stick shift? How do we prevent your grey matter from being continually hijacked by whatever emotions well up inside you?
How To Prevent Brain Hijack
Buddhism recognized this problem over 1000 years ago. And it also came up with a solution: mindfulness meditation.
But wait a second — Buddhism is a religion, right? Hold on. You can improve your body with yoga without being Hindu. And you can improve your brain through meditation without being Buddhist. Meditation is a secular tool for strengthening mental muscles.
And neuroscience gives it a big thumbs up. Studies show meditation trains your brain to be less reactive to emotional swings and can prevent the wrong module from hijacking control of your brain.
The meditators’ brains were scanned while they saw disturbing images of people suffering, like burn victims. The seasoned practitioners’ brains revealed a lowered level of reactivity in the amygdala; they were more immune to emotional hijacking. The reason: their brains had stronger operative connectivity between the prefrontal cortex, which manages reactivity, and the amygdala, which triggers such reactions. As neuroscientists know, the stronger this particular link in the brain, the less a person will be hijacked by emotional downs and ups of all sorts.
And this helps you make better decisions.
Here’s Robert Wright:
After all, one virtue of mindfulness meditation is that experiencing your feelings with care and clarity, rather than following them reflexively and uncritically, lets you choose which ones to follow—like, say, joy, delight, and love.
When you’re better able to cope with feelings and not just instinctively reacting to them, you’re able to stay calm and resist hijacking. And astronauts, samurai and Navy SEALs all agree that the key to making good decisions — especially under pressure — is keeping your cool.
(To learn the 4 rituals from neuroscience that will make you happy, click here.)
Great. So how do you meditate to get those powerful brain benefits?
Dan Harris wrote the most accessible — and most entertaining — book on meditation out there: 10% Happier. And when I spoke to him, here’s how he explained the dead simple way to build those brain biceps:
It really involves three extremely simple steps.
One: Sit with your eyes closed and your back straight.
Two: Notice what it feels like when your breath comes in and when your breath goes out, try to bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out.
Third step is the biggie. Every time you try to do this, your mind is going to go crazy. You are going to start thinking about all sorts of stupid things like if you need a haircut, why you said that dumb thing to your boss, what’s for lunch, etc. Every time you notice that your mind is wandering, bring your attention back to your breath and begin again. This is going to happen over and over and over again and that is meditation.
By the way, you’re going to suck at this. Meditation is the hardest simple thing you’ll ever do. Dan agrees:
It’s not easy. You will “fail” a million times but the “failing” and starting over is succeeding. So this isn’t like most things in your life where, like if you can’t get up on water skis, you can’t do it. Here the trying and starting again, trying and starting again, that’s the whole game.
But do you need to be in the midst of meditation to get the improvements? Nope. Neuroplasticity to the rescue! Over time, meditation produces trait changes in the brain so that the effects persist.
…there are hints in the research that these changes are traitlike: they appear not simply during the explicit instruction to perceive the stressful stimuli mindfully but even in the “baseline” state, with reductions in amygdala activation as great as 50 percent. Such lessening of the brain’s stress reactions appears in response not simply to seeing the gory pictures used in the laboratory but also to more real-life challenges…
But getting your grey matter to seriously change itself takes time. A lot of time. Hundreds or thousands of hours of meditating. I know what you’re thinking: I don’t have 10 years to sit cross-legged on a mountaintop. I have a job, pal.
I get it. What’s truly fascinating is that recent research has shown a tiny bit of meditation can actually be used acutely — in the moment when you’re having a push-the-red-button-level emergency.
As these stressful thoughts were presented, the patients used either of two different attentional stances: mindful awareness of their breath or distraction by doing mental arithmetic. Only mindfulness of their breath both lowered activity in the amygdala— mainly via a faster recovery— and strengthened it in the brain’s attentional networks, while the patients reported less stress reactivity.
When you’re feeling stressed out, when it seems like a hijack might be coming, just do a “mini-meditation.” By focusing on your breath for a few moments you can get some of the long term benefits of meditation right when you need them.
(To learn more about how to meditate from Dan Harris, click here.)
We’ve covered a lot. Time for the yous to gather ’round. Let’s pull it all together and learn how the modular vision of the brain along with mindfulness can lead to that little thing called wisdom…
Here’s what you and you and you need to know about how to be more mindful:
- There are many yous: Like apps on a smartphone, different systems in your brain with different goals can take control at different times, which is why you can behave so inconsistently.
- Feelings are what give a module control: You get worked up by what your buddy said and suddenly your brain is hijacked by “Angry Birds” instead of “Words With Friends.”
- Meditation can prevent hijacking: Over time, meditation can rewire your brain to be less impulsively reactive and allow you to thoughtfully respond to your feelings.
- Mini-meditations help in the moment: By focusing on your breath during a tense moment you can get some of the long term effects of meditation right when you need them.
Less reactivity means fewer hijacks which leads to better decisions and more alignment between thought and action. Over time, that leads to wisdom. Neuroscience PhD and meditation advocate Sam Harris put it best:
On one level, wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow one’s own advice.
You don’t want your internal Grubhub app taking charge when you’re on a diet. And you certainly don’t want that Tinder app active when you’re with someone you know isn’t right for you. (Swipe left!)
Observe a couple breaths. Stay calm so you can get back to your home screen. Choose the right app for the situation.
Trust me: you don’t want Natasha running the show.
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