“My head won’t leave my head alone. And I don’t believe it will until I’m dead and gone” – Dave Matthews
You gotta have a sense of humour about your own brain. I know that mine brain is hilarious, especially when I step out of it and look at it from the “outside”. If you don’t do that from time to time, your brain doesn’t seem so hilarious. In fact, it can seem exasperating.
Of course, stepping outside your own brain is easier said than done because you kind of have to use your brain to do that. The fact that it’s even possible is kind of astonishing. But it is possible.
A brain can analyse itself. That is just beyond cool. Perhaps that’s the built in mechanism that allows brain to not disappear up it’s own arse. I really don’t know. I am not a zen scholar. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a neuroscientist. But something tells me Dave Matthews should meditate.
Ah, yes. Meditation. It has a pretty new age-y ring to it for something that is dead practical. I like to think of it as a way to access a kind of pressure valve when the brain is chasing its own tail and overheating.
I read this book called Your Brain at Work (by David Rock). I liked it a lot – heaps of practical ideas in it but this one simple sentence early in kind of blew my mind. Ready? Here goes:
“You are not your brain.”
Um…what now? How do you mean? That’s preposterous…isn’t it?
That idea really shook me up. You might think it obvious – or perhaps it would shake you up too. And yet to hear it came as a relief of sorts.
It opened the door a tad. Let a little light in.
Fast forward a few months and I’m listening to an audiobook called The Power of Now – the classic Eckhart Tolle book from the late 1990’s (that I probably wouldn’t have read except I thought it was about procrastination not “spiritual enlightenment”. I don’t really hang out in the New Age section of Audible.com).
Nevertheless – it grabbed me and i enjoyed it a lot. And it unexpectedly had the effect of turning the crack of light Your brain at Work let in into a serviceably sized window. In particular this moment which happens right up front in the book:
Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.
Oh…wow. That’s a really interesting idea. And it kind of rings true.
So then as you might have guessed I immediately rushed out, gave away all worldly possessions and joined a buddhist monastery.
No, not really…I never did that.
But it would be an understatement to say I considered the insight to be of passing interest. The insight I had that helped me to consider my relationship to my brain in a way that I never really had before. In fact I never previously thought of myself having “a relationship with my brain” at all – I just figured I was my brain. It was me. One big mush. Maybe not, after all. Maybe there was more to me than just one me.
How very Fight Club.
When it came to my day to day experience of what I felt to be “me”, I honestly just figured it was all like the weather. Moods, confidence, inspiration, the lack of it. Some days it was “mostly sunny” some days “overcast”, some days “chance of showers” and of course, quite often, just plain “Fog”. That was my brain. That was me.
But to look at my brain as something I had rather than something I was opened up new ways of dissecting things. And I started to see my brain in very different terms.
So what the hell is the you that is separate from your brain?
I’m not going to go there. It doesn’t matter. Maybe check the “New Age” section. This isn’t where I want to go with these ideas.
The things is that once you make the split, weather you consider it real split or just a way of thinking you suddenly have a new set of mental tools for analysing yourself and your habits. We don’t need to answer the Big Questions to be able to use those tools.
The fact is that even if it turns out that the idea that you are separate from your brain is a provable fallacy it would still remain a valuable conceit – much like the number Zero which describes something that doesn’t exist – or like good fiction, where an author can convey truth through what is essentially a lie.
So I accepted the idea and set about thinking where it could lead: My brain as something that I have rather than something that I am. When you think about it like that, it’s easier to watch the way it works and not be so involved. Then, you can work with it rather than through or against it.
So I watched, I observed I read and I thought long and hard. And here’s what I have come to understand:
In fact, without conscious effort that is all brains seem to do. They scan real experiences, looking for patterns, then build a reality by assuming that pattern will continue, making adjustments when there’s a change that suggests a different pattern.
When you watch your brain do this, from the detachment of the idea that you are not your brain it’s actually kind of hilarious. Silly old brain, what a dufus!
Look at it, just assuming like it “knows” this and “knows” that. Look at it assuming left right and centre. Like a blind sniffer dog. Like one of those automatic vacuum cleaners that bumps into walls and adjusts it’s course and spins and adjusts and bumps and adjusts between each bump so certain.
This happens whether you think you are your brain or not.
If you have no concept of your brain not being you, then this is your experience of reality. Find Pattern…extrapolate. Find Pattern…extrapolate. Trial and error.
The robot vacuum cleaner is a funny image but it becomes a lot less funny when you realise we are talking about your experience of reality. You Life-with-a-capital-L. Is your day to day an ongoing series of assumptions that you don’t even know your brain is making on your behalf? If so, you’d do well to be aware of that fact.
Not that knowing it is going to change it – you’re brain comes from a long line of brains that have spent millions of years evolving to get to this point. You don’t stand a chance of changing the way it operates now. But you can be aware of it and you can plan accordingly.
Our brains love to tell us stories about ourselves for better or for worse. We think of ourselves as worthy or unworthy, on a journey or in a rut, as winning or losing, going forwards or going backwards. Talented or just a Hack.
Our brains focus on aspects of our experiences and extrapolate away like extrapolating was an Olympic Ping Pong tournament and we’re China.
Our brains extrapolate constantly, gracefully, effortlessly, masterfully and without any bias toward the positive or negative. That’s crucial. Brains don’t care. They’re too busy extrapolating. The Honey Badger comes to mind (sorry, I couldn’t help it).
Now – Look at the stories we tell ourselves. Are they real?
Sure, they might have a sound basis and can be justified but are they reality?
How often do our assumptions change? Turn on a dime, reverse themselves and prove our perception of reality wrong once again?
That’s right – a whole lot.
Stories. That’s what we’re talking about. Self-talk.
And I figure that when you boil all of the stories down, there are two modes of thinking. The most important extrapolations. The two modes that your brain is always in.
Ready? Here they are:
That’s it. Those are what I figure are the two basic modes.
When your brain is in Mode 1, you’re in a flow. You’re confident. You’re surfing. You’re inertia is working for you.
When you’re in Mode 2, you’re shaken, You’re demoralised. You’re depressed. You just can’t catch a wave without being dumped. You’re a “loser”. Your inertia is against you.
And each is a fiction. An assumption created by your brain. Forever temporary until the other takes over.
It is why the little things count. This is why little defeats must be moved on from quickly and why little victories count.
This is the very crucible of creative productivity.