Is Your Brain The Enemy?
Evolving the AutoFilter and Becoming Conscious of the Unconscious
You might be sabotaging your happiness right now, without even knowing it. You might already have access to key pieces of information to solve all of your problems, to catapult you to the next level of whatever you want, and yet you are ignoring this data. Crazier still, you are ignoring the fact that you are ignoring it!
What is going on, and how can we change it?
The Science of Perception
Our brains receive sensory input as information from our sensing organs—photons absorbed by rods or cones in our eyes; waves vibrating the eardrum; pressure activating nerves on our skin. We receive far more information than we can be consciously aware of, so mostly our brain automatically chooses what is most important through an unconscious process (that purportedly involves the reticular activating system).
Before we even get the data into our conscious awareness, our habituation determines what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Typically the brain chooses what is most obviously a threat or an opportunity to highlight, and the process of choosing is unconscious. Think about how quickly you get used to the smell of a certain house or car when you have determined it will no longer endanger or help you. This is not a conscious choice—it just happens.
The Unconscious Sorting Process
Do you ever wonder what information you might be missing? What if your unconscious program includes tossing out information that will help you become happier, more successful, friendlier, and more joyful? What if your program holds on to useless information that misdirects you, or makes you think the world is a more challenging and hostile place than it truly is, leading you to be unhappy or waste effort on objectives that are unimportant?
How would you know for sure unless you took a look? And if you found something you did not like, how would you change it?
Fortunately we are not stuck with the programming of our unconscious habituation. It changes constantly based on inner and outer life conditions and contexts—usually without us knowing.
The Benefits of Automatic Processing
Typically this unconscious sorting and unconscious updating is a very good thing. We do not want to have to sift through the crazy amounts of data our sense organs receive, so we distribute the processing and sorting intelligence throughout our bodies. This helps us function in everyday life.
It is a program created to help us, but like any helper, it is not always correct. It greatly behooves us to take a look at what we are not choosing to perceive, especially in the complexity of today’s world, especially when we are called to innovate, think outside of the box, and come up with creative solutions to tough problems. And, especially when we are unhappy or pursuing self-actualization.
Unlocking Creativity and Innovation
Why? Because unconscious habituation is literally the box you want to think outside of to come up with something new. Bust it open. Find out where you boundaries are. Find out what shade you have drawn and open them for a second. Take a peek out of a different window. You can always pull the shades closed again if you want.
Basically, if you want to break the rules and you do not know what they are, you are far less likely to break them. Note that you are likely to find these rules in the places that make you feel uncomfortable.
Solving The World’s Problems
Our traditional boxes are too small and limiting to solve the large problems we face. You want to solve a worldwide problem like poverty or climate change or terrorism? Bust open the unconscious habituation of your culture and upbringing. Start taking in data that you normally filter out—without even being aware that you are filtering it out!
You cannot possibly solve a worldwide problem without understanding it, and you cannot understand a worldwide phenomenon without a worldwide perspective. Yet our brains are hardwired to think and act locally. Again, this is a really great thing early in our lives and early in our human history. In the grand scheme of our species, we had absolutely no need to think globally, and doing so would only have distracted us from the immediate concerns of food, shelter, family, and safety.
Yet the circumstances have changed, and we must change with them. Can you feel into the perspective of the people you judge and dislike the most? Can you understand the internal logic of their position? If not, how can you possibly work with them?
The Confirmation Bias
There are all sorts of cognitive biases that play into our unconscious sorting process, but one in particular plays a heavy hand in our happiness. The Confirmation Bias is what happens you think about buying a yellow Jeep and suddenly you notice a ton of yellow Jeeps all over the road. They did not suddenly appear more often; you were seeing those yellow Jeeps all along but you brain filtered them out without you knowing, until the information was deemed (unconsciously) useful.
Now apply this to happiness: you might be throwing out the data of good deeds people perform for you, situations of good luck, things that make you happy, without even realizing it. Instead, you may be accidentally using the Confirmation Bias to confirm your suspicion that the world is out to get you, all you have is bad luck, everyone is mean, and sadness is rational.
Although we have talked already about how Optimism is The Rational Choice, the happy-go-lucky friend you have may indeed be using the Confirmation Bias in their favor, not just to focus on the good but to overlook the bad!
Taking the Reins
How can one take control of an unconscious process? The answer is multifaceted, complex, and takes a lifetime of work. Jonathan Haidt, author ofThe Happiness Hypothesis, suggests that dealing with our unconscious programming is like taming an elephant; you train it patiently over time by guiding, not forcing.
Luckily there are few easy steps to get started.
1. Meditate Regularly
Think about it: meditation is a practice of becoming more and more aware of your thoughts, and less and less judgmental toward them. You become aware of your unconscious process of thinking and sorting as well, thereby beginning to have choice over it. With awareness comes choice. The more you meditate, the easier it becomes to become aware of your these processes in everyday situations as they occur.
Long time readers will find this suggestion as no surprise to top the list. Just remember that a five minute meditation that you actually do is better than an hour long meditation on a to-do list.
2. Build a Gratitude Habit
A simple way to use the confirmation bias in your favor is to build a habit of gratitude. Some people like to keep a gratitude journal, where they write down things they are grateful for, good things that happened to them, or nice things people said, every single day. Others will try to begin the day with a thought of gratitude—even programming it into their alarm clocks. Still others prefer to close the day with gratitude.
This could be a personal, partner, or group practice. It does not matter how or when you do it, just that you do it. And that you do it often. This is a way of priming your unconscious sorting brain to say “These acts of kindness, these situations I feel grateful for, are important, so please highlight them in my conscious awareness.”
Most people notice that when they express gratitude to and for others, others start to express it back.
3. Ask for Feedback
How do you become aware of the things you are unaware of? The question is almost a logical fallacy—hinting at the fact that it is almost impossible to do alone. Get help!
Asking for feedback can be tricky, especially when you want something you or others might consider negative feedback. If “What am I blind to that you think is obvious?” is a bit too blunt for you, or likely too challenging for your ego, you can always frame it in a more comfortable way. For example, “What areas do you think you can help me grow?” or “Will you send me articles and book recommendations that will expand my thinking?” will work just as well.
Different people will find different techniques work for them at different times in their life. Many are complex and already command articles and books of their own. A constructivist-developmental model of ego development, or an integral understanding of levels of consciousness, would be particularly helpful in identifying blind spots in any particular worldview. These would also yield the most stage appropriate practices. Yet the three suggestions above should yield positive results for anyone who actually engages them, regardless of gender or culture, regardless of what stage they are at in their own life journey.