Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How the mind works: Understanding Your Mental Software

When we hear the term “mind” we often think of the brain, but the mind is much more than the brain. The brain is the hardware while the mind is the software it runs. When you are dead, your brain will still be there (for a while), but your mind will not.

So just what is the mind? If we are going to get any use out of the mind, we need a definition that is useful. Although the word “mind” leads us to believe the mind is a thing, it is not. The mind is label we have given to an active and dynamic process of thinking, perceiving and experiencing. The term “mind” refers to a never-ending flow of information processing. The mind is never static. It is a constant stream of sensory input, thoughts, ideas and perceptions. It’s a continuous dance of information, a ceaseless stream of awareness in which almost anything can be swept up.
What exactly goes on in this stream of awareness? From moment to moment you receive vast amounts of information from the outside world through your senses. Your awareness jumps from point to point in your external experience, sorting for what is important to you as your minds engages in the process of interpreting and evaluating the incoming data. External information is filtered through beliefs, attitudes and memories and associations are activated. Emotions arise and generate responses; speech, actions and behaviour.

On the screen of your mind you flash images, snapshots and run movies. You hear sounds and voices and often narrate the film with your own voice. The pictures and sounds of your mind occur all in sequence, one after the other, which results in an ever changing flux of experience which changes from moment to moment.

Directing and guiding this stream of awareness is a system. We can think of the mind as system that directs our information processing. This system is made up of numerous elements, all interacting and influencing one another to generate our experience. The way we experience the world is through the process of representing, sequencing and ordering the information we acquire from the outside world.

The system of information processing we call “the mind” can also be called our internal reality. We each have an external reality- the environment we live in, the circumstances of our lives – and we each have our own unique internal reality. It is this internal reality that lies behind emotions, behaviour and results.

Our inner reality is far from a random mess of mental chaos. Human subjective experience has a structure. Knowing the specific elements that make up the structure of our internal reality enables us to alter the structure so that it serves us better.

For thousands of years we have believed that the mind was complicated and elusive; a mystery waiting to be unravelled, a cipher waiting to be cracked. We now know that the mind is much simpler than we once thought. When we know the building blocks of human subjective experience, the elements that make up what we call “mind,” we can change them.

The components of a system can be reorganized. The processes we use to encode information and the sequence data can be optimized to produce desired results. When we know the elements of a system we can change the system so it functions more effectively and efficiently. When we know what is going on behind the scenes of behaviour and emotion, we can change it and transform our experience.

For hundreds of years the field of psychology tried to find a way to change emotions and behaviour. The methods devised made great theories, but never really resulted in much change. Some of the theories made a lot of sense, but practice didn’t seem to yield any results. The advocates of different psychological theories over the past hundred years spent more time arguing over theories than trying to find something that really worked. It took up until the late 1970s before a model that was actually useful and practical was devised.

Throughout our lives we have fought with our emotions and struggled to change habits and behaviours with little or no success. We have been attempting to change the symptom of some cause without getting to the source. Trying to change with willpower alone is like trying to weed a garden without getting at the roots and wondering why the weeds keep growing back. We wonder why change is so difficult, but it’s not that change is difficult, it’s that we’ve been going about it the wrong way. Trying to shovel the snow of your driveway with a rake isn’t going to work very well, so why not trying something else? To change emotions and behaviours we need to step behind the scenes and peek into our internal experience to see what is going on behind our emotions and behaviours. We need to look beyond the surface and find the source.

Emotions and behaviours don’t come out of nowhere. They result naturally from our internal programming. For whatever emotions you feel and whatever behaviours you produce, your programming must be perfectly optimized to produce that result. If you are depressed, your mind has been programmed to produce depression. If anxiety is your constant companion, your mind has been programmed to produce anxiety. If you find yourself lacking confidence, or giving into to self-sabotage, it’s because your mental software permits it. And if you live a life of joy and success, it’s because your internal programming has been optimized to generate that result.

Problems are learned, and if they can be learned, they can be unlearned. Change your programming and you change the result.

Although you never go anywhere without your mind, most of what goes on in the mind remains a mystery to you. Why? Because much of what occurs in your mind is out of awareness. Our mental programs operate behind the scenes, out of consciousness, and it is those aspects of our functioning that operate out of awareness that lead to emotions and behaviours. To put on a great show and produce the results we need to navigate in the world, there is a whole crew of things going on backstage. All we see is the final performance.

If you open the task manager on a computer you can see all of the applications running. When you look at this list you see precisely the programs that you know are operating. In your mind, these would correspond to the things you are aware of at any given moment. However, click on the list of processes and you get a whole array of programs running behind the scenes. There are far more in this list than in the list of applications running and when you look at this list of processes, you can’t even identify what most of them are. They are operating in the background, out of awareness, permitting you to think, feel, act and react to your experience of life.
In order to reprogram our minds and upgrade our mental software to produce superior results, we must begin by bringing those hidden programs to the surface. Once we know what is operating in the mind we can run some antivirus software, uninstall outdated programs and upgrade where possible. Most of us race to have the latest cell phone and the newest gadget, but why do we keep running obsolete mental software?

Don’t worry, when you begin to explore your mind you won’t find inner demons waiting to be freed or terrible things wanting to bubble up as Freud would have you believe. You will, however, very likely find some old programs that you may no longer want. Remember, they are just programs and if you installed them, you can uninstall them.

I'd love to read your comments below…

David Kynan