Unpacking Your Mind — learning more about how your mind works is key to living your life differently
In This Moment
This is the second last article…
The mind is a mysterious thing.
When used to explore, analyze, and create, the mind is both efficient and elegant. But where we go astray is in not noticing how our minds actually work.
We tend to take it all for granted. We assume that what we see, and how we interpret what we see:
- a) is correct
- b) is the same as others see it
- c) is the result of our objectivity
In Buddhism, there is the idea of the emptiness of things. I describe this as “Empty of meaning.” In other words, the labels we put on things are artificial constructs; are not an innate part of the thing itself.
For example, Mt. Rushmore is quite large.
However, when compared to the Crazy Horse Memorial, it’s quite small. So, is it small, or large? (All four 60-foot high heads on Mt. Rushmore would fit inside just Crazy Horse’s head.)
It depends. On what you compare it to. In other words, Mt. Rushmore does not have, as an innate characteristic, “largeness.”
Right and wrong are similar.
The question is, according to whom? The thing being judged does not have an innate characteristic of rightness or wrongness. That’s something we apply to the thing. Like a coat of paint is not innate to what it covers over.
The reason we label is directly related to to workings of our two- hemisphere mind.
Brain scientists have devised lots of experiments to sort this out… to see the process. One set of experiments involves optical illusions. Something appears to be one thing, and under a different “light,” we become aware of another thing.
Another way to describe our mind’s functions is to look at the separate halves of the brain. Different functions, and also part of the root cause of our confusion.
Lately, I’ve been enjoying the writing of Steven Pinker — he’s a Psych Professor at MIT and also a Canadian. He is deeply engaged in studying the mechanisms of language and thought, and I wasn’t sure I’d like his stuff. As it turns out, it’s incredibly challenging, but also seems to confirm the idea that most things aren’t as they appear.
Here’s the necessary Biology 101:
As background, the right side of the brain is the creative/visual side. It does not have language per se, but “speaks” in images and actions. You might say it sees and hears but does not label or try to explain.
The left side of the brain does math and processes language. It is also the seat of “labelling” — in its benign form: “The thing I see is an apple (label) and an apple is in the categories, “Fruit, tasty, eatable, round, red.” In it’s not so benign form: The object I see is a woman, which fits the categories, “subservient, needing to be controlled by a man, temptress.”
Remember, whole groups of fundamentalists believe that last one, considering it both “true,” and “god’s will.” This is the left brain, running amok.
Here are two ideas, from Pinker’s books. The first comes from The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature: (pg. 43)
There is a connector, the corpus callosum, which allows communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Julian Jaynes wrote about its development in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Some people have this connection severed through surgery or accident. In experimenting with such people, a startling learning emerges.
One experiment goes like this: (Remember, they’re experimenting on people who have no connection between the hemispheres of their brains.)
The researchers flash “WALK” so that only the right brain can see it (by keeping it in the right brain’s visual field). The right brain sees the words, and gets the person up and walking out of the room. The right brain, remember, sees in images and actions, and takes things literally.
Now, here is the interesting part. They then stop the test subject and ask him why he’s leaving the room. The question is picked up and answered by the left brain. (Remember: left brain activity – reasoning, labelling and explanations.) In every case, they hear something like, “I’m getting a coke.”
This is very peculiar
Because of the nature of the experiment, the left side of the brain never saw the “WALK” sign. The connection between the hemispheres is severed. So, you’d think the left side would say, “I don’t know,” or, “That’s odd. Every time we do this experiment I end up leaving the room, and I don’t know why.”
Instead, the left side of the brain “justifies” behaviour it hasn’t a clue about. It invents a reason, and is willing to assert its correctness.
“The spooky part is that we have no reason to think that the baloney-generator in the patient’s left hemisphere is behaving any differently from ours as we make sense of the inclinations emanating from the rest of our brains. The conscious mind–the self or soul — is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.” (pg. 43)
“Spin-doctoring” is an apparently automatic process, and explains, for example, why people blame when things don’t go the way they want them to.
It isn’t even necessarily an intentional lie. It’s just the left-brain’s instinctual need to have a reason for everything, no matter how far fetched. It’s also why, when we see others doing this (blaming, being inconsistent, justifying behaviour they just said they were not going to do again) that we judge them to be full of it.
Pinker’s description of the left side of the brain as the “baloney-generator” is quite correct.
Here’s another idea for you.
In his earlier book,How the Mind Works , Pinker Pinker states that learning or behavioural change comes about in a 2‑fold process:
- we first change the way we think about something (thinking follows certain rules. Changing thinking follows the same rules. We learned to add by rote and by experience. We then took that pattern an applied it to multiplication, while changing the way we handled the numbers.)
- then we change what we are doing, by rigourously applying the new understanding.
So, changing the way we think and act in the world first of all involves admitting we don’t know something. Or admitting what we are doing isn’t working. We then must fight the influence of the “baloney-generator,” which starts coming up with excuses for past behaviour.
It is absolutely predictable that this will happen. Just like in the experiment with the brain patients–they don’t know, but they sure have a reason.
When firing on auto-pilot, nothing can change, because belief and behaviour is a closed, self-sustaining system. We simply believe what our “baloney-generator” is shovelling.
The way out happens as we train ourselves to notice the baloney, and change our behaviour. One way is to state, loudly and clearly:
“Oops. I was just generating some baloney there. I don’t know. Let’s talk about it.”
We begin to change when we simply say, “I haven’t got a clue.”
If I think I know something, I am paralyzed by what I think I know. If I am open to learning, I have a chance to actually make new brain connections and thus change the way I understand what’s up.
I can’t change my genetics, nor can I change how I was parented. (Notice, BTW, how many people whine about their genetics and parenting, the two things completely out of their control.) I can become a learner, by focussing on Beginner’s Mind.
Even a true Master will acknowledge that he or she is a learner.
There is no, “I’ve got it!” There is only, “I am getting it!”
If I value being right, I will not be open to changing my belief. I will simply want recognition for what I know. If I want to be the centre of attention, I will either be larger than life, or will change my behaviour continually, trying to be all things to all people. If I want ultimate success at work, family and relationships will suffer. If my focus is possessions, I will be consumed with getting.
What is working for you and what is not? What excuses do you list for not changing? And when will you let go of them, and explore other options– as you endlessly show up as a Beginner?
We can shift our lives by exploring our thoughts and changing our behaviours. If we choose. Again and again.