Do you think the brain and mind is the same thing? Does it even matter to talk about distinctions between the two?
It’s about how we can go about making changes in our lives, especially if we want to have more control over our internal narrative, our self-talk and ultimately, behavior.
Late 20th century brain researchers viewed the brain in strict, functional, neuronal terms as an information processor that operated without reference to content and context. The mind, when viewed from this Newtonian mechanistic model of the world, is determined by brain activity.
Things changed in the 21st century.
Technological advances, interdisciplinary discoveries and a systemic approach led the way to a new perspective about the mind and brain. Key among these discoveries is the notion that the brain is capable of neuroplasticity – capable of changing as a result of experience. From the moment we’re born until we die the brain is capable of creating new neural circuitry.
Another major contribution to the shift in thinking about brain and mind is the idea that the brain is a social organ. It connects with other brains via neural circuitry in our body that is hard-wired to take in other’s signals. In other words, “we think outside our own individual brain.”
As neuroscientist Leslie Brothers (2001) describes it, “our neural machinery” “doesn’t produce mind; it enables participation.” While the brain is structurally 100 billion neurons, each connecting to 5,000 to 10,000 others and their complex patterns of firing – the mind as Daniel Siegel’s describes is the “flow of energy and information.”
Life is a process, Things happen, events occur in our lives – we make adjustments. Life is all about change. Sometimes for the good, other times, not so good. We’re always making adjustments.. That’s the flow.
Energy is our internal dynamism. It’s an internal force that is manifested externally in what we say and do.
Information is the output of an internal process and in the words of Daniel Siegel, “something that stands for something else.” Since information is both representative and interpretative, it can also represent our internal dialogues and the meanings we assign to them. Bottom line – it’s all information.
So, what can we do when our brain takes control of our thoughts and actions?
Just last night as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep I was flooded with seemingly disconnected, non-stop thoughts. There was the thought about shopping for the ingredients for a recipe. Then there was the thought about my work and capabilities. Some thoughts have significance and impact our lives in meaningful ways – and then… there are thoughts about shopping.
Just as all behavior is a result of habit formation, so too, are our thoughts. The connection between the two is inextricable. Thoughts translate to behavior. And. here’s where the brain/mind distinction serves us in creating pathways to making changes in our life.
Nothing is more intrusive, distracting and painful than when our brain takes control of our thoughts. Notice I’m saying our brain, not our mind. Those thoughts, like all thoughts, are housed in our neural circuitry, internalized, mapped and coded as a result of everything we have heard, seen and experienced in our lives. They are the residents of our beliefs.
From a neuroscience perspective, when we’re triggered into negative, repetitive thought patterns – I’m suggesting they do not represent our true self. Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding describe them as ‘deceptive messages” – from our brain, not our mind.
In their book, You Are Not Your Brain, they put forth the idea that, “deceptive brain messages have intruded into your psyche and taken control over your life. Left to its own devices, your brain can cause you to believe things that are not true and to act in any number of self-destructive ways.”
Using our mind we can change our brain by creating new neural circuitry and override neuronal mapping that has led to the unproductive narratives that we unconsciously accept as the truth of who we are.
“The mind has the ability to determine whether it wants to focus either on that information coming from the brain or on something else.” Jeffery Schwartz, Rebecca Gladding
How does this get done, you’re probably asking. Well, here’s one way to think about it.
An aspect of our mind can be likened to our “higher self – a form of meta-cognition. It’s our ability to bear witness to our self in the moment, to think about what we’re thinking. It’s that part of us borne out of our self-awareness.
In his article in Scientific Mind magazine, Ferris Jabr writes, “to be conscious is to think; to be self-aware is to realize that you are a thinking being and to think about your thoughts.”
Self—awareness enables us to access our mind, our “higher self,” the part of our self that represents our true self. Not who we were taught to believe who we are, but the part representing our “inherent worth, capabilities and accomplishments.”
When in this heightened perceptual position we’re better able to evaluate these negative, deceptive and intrusive thoughts. We initiate a process of understanding the source of these thoughts, linking them to our emotional states and engaging the part of our brain responsible for shifting attention. We can then place our attention on something else; thereby diminishing the power and energy of the deceptive messages.
Changing how we think is not easy, but it can be done. Allowing the notion that we are not our thoughts may be even more challenging, but it can be done. With patient tolerance and unbounded self-respect, we can gently explore, embrace and ultimately release these “deceptive messages” from our brain.
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George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants