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A day in the life of your brain

We hear a lot about living in the moment. Inspirational quotes say things like: “Don’t look back, you are not going that way” or “When your past calls, don’t answer. It has nothing to say”. The problem is that most of the day you don’t live in the moment. You are functioning on a form of autopilot.

Just to show how this works, think about what you had for breakfast today.

There are a number of things that just happened without you having to cognitively engage with the question:

  • Your mind did an instant pattern match to the word breakfast. This is like a Google search, but way quicker. The search will have returned a match to the first meal of the day.
  • Armed with that fact, it will now search through your memories, moving back through time to whenever it was breakfast time, and zooming in on what you ate (or didn’t eat).
  • Next the memory will be layered with meaning. Were you hungry? Did you enjoy it? How were you feeling at the time? Your mind will be flooded with the meaning of the question “What did you have for breakfast?”.
  • What happens next depends on what that meaning was.

This is what normal looks like. This is what happens at least 90% of your day, probably more. Have you ever driven through a set of traffic lights and afterwards suddenly wondered whether they were actually green, or did you just run a red light? Or maybe you’ve driven from one place to another only to find, when you reach your destination, that you don’t remember any of the journey. 

We generally function perfectly well with our subconscious keeping things going, in a ‘not-quite-present’ state. But not all the time. Sometimes, the search that our subconscious executes when it is looking for a match in our memories, finds something that has a risk in it. If a situation reminds your subconscious of something that hurt you in the past, it will switch into a different state.

This state change begins with your cognitive function being disengaged. This function is used for problem solving and for rational and logical thought. If you are being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger, and you take a moment to weigh up whether you have the right spear, or whether your footwear is suitable to outrun it, then chances are you are not going to live long enough to execute on your conclusions. While you are processing, the tiger is attacking and munching away on your legs. Your cognitive brain is simply too slow when you are faced with any sort of threat.

With your thinking brain disengaged, your subconscious is free to take control of your body and mind. It is an automatic response designed to give you the best chance of surviving an attack by a predator. You may know this as the fight or flight response. It also includes freeze, which is a more common response these days. You need to be able to either face up to the predator and win in a fight, run away faster than it runs without running out of energy, or be able to remain incredibly still for a lengthy period of time so that it loses track of you. This all happens automatically in response to your subconscious finding a match between something in your environment and a stored memory.

The most common phobia that tops the UK’s list of top phobias is a fear of spiders. That means you either are somebody, or know somebody, that is scared of spiders. If you think of that person with a fear of spiders, whether it’s you or someone else, when a spider comes into the room, they stop being themselves. They might scream or jump on a chair to escape. If you’re not scared of spiders, you’re there saying “You do know they can climb walls, right?”. But they can’t hear you. Their subconscious has disengaged the part of their brain that is capable of logic and understanding. They literally can’t hear you when you tell them it can’t hurt you or advise them calmly to put a glass over it or stand on it.

Then when the spider leaves the room, the subconscious allows you access to your prefrontal cortex again. You can once more look at the situation rationally. Now you feel like a muppet because you know the spider can’t hurt you. Why on earth did you over-react like that? Well, don’t worry. From now on you can say it’s not you being crazy, it’s your subconscious!

The thing about being scared of spiders is that most people aren’t going to visit a therapist to help them overcome it. You just engineer your life around it. You make sure that you know which of your friends, or people close to you, is not scared of spiders, and call on them when necessary. I have a friend who spent two hours stuck in her bedroom once because there was a spider above the door. The spider didn’t move for two hours, so neither did she! That’s pretty screwed up, but she didn’t get help for it.

Unfortunately, sometimes these screw ups are so pervasive that it’s impossible to avoid them. For example, you might feel terrified at the prospect of being in the spotlight. When you are asked to speak in front of a room full of people, you panic. Your mouth goes dry. You lose the ability to think. You hate it. You try and avoid any situation where you might have to do it, but at work, it’s almost impossible to avoid. It’s also probably holding you back and stopping you applying for a job with more responsibility, because more responsibility often leads to more focus on you.

With this type of problem, you are likely to approach it in the same way as you might approach a fear of spiders. You beat yourself up for being silly. You read lots of self-help books, attend workshops and courses, and try everything you can to sort your head out so you can think your way out of the problem. It doesn’t work. Then you feel even more useless because you really should be able to sort this out.

But hold on a moment, not everyone is scared of spiders. Not everyone is scared of random biscuits. So how does your subconscious know what to be afraid of and what is safe? I'll explain more in the next lesson. 

Lesson Activity

Start noticing when things are triggering you to remember stuff. Notice when you are not present. Notice when you have to think your way past something because part of you is telling you one thing and another is telling you something different. This could be: worrying what someone thinks, feeling not good enough, nerves about doing something, feeling like a rubbish parent or anything

3 Lessons

Brain switch off is a normal state

An important part of understanding what is gonig on with your child is understanding that it's not their fault. Their brain is being switched off on them. So is yours. 

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