Getting Your Mind to Work for You

Troy Todd, Ph.D., BCN

The mind will occasionally drive us into behaviors and thoughts that are harmful, or impede us from accomplishing things that are valuable to us. This common struggle can be improve through a better understanding of how the complex machine that is the mind works.

Here, the term “mind” references the experiential result of the combination of the physiological workings of the central nervous system, the cognitive abilities of perception and interpretation of stimuli in the environment, conscious decision making, decision making that is outside of consciousness, and the automatic self-regulation of our bodies (a process orchestrated by the nervous system). In understanding how these various systems work, and why we experience them as we do, should allow better management of them and, therefore, greater overall functionality.

The mind naturally does not make a distinction between actual and imagined experiences. Without deliberate cognitive intervention, the mind will cause the body and brain to react to thoughts to the same degree as to actual perceived stimuli from the environment. The most obvious example of this is watching a horror movie. We know that the movie is simply light projected on a wall and sound from speakers, yet we may react by tightening our muscles, sweating, shortening our breathing, etc. We experience other more insidious effects from this principle: if we are concerned about what work will be like on Monday, we will not sleep on Sunday night. If the words of our spouse encourages recollection of the negative things our parents used to say, we will treat our spouse with contempt. Being aware of this characteristic of the mind and applying consistent conscious control will eliminate many undesirable behaviors, wasted energy, and time.

The mind does not use linear logic. Linear logic requires tangible, definable data or objects and uses single-ended relationships between them. This type of logic is impressed upon us throughout our education, but it is not the natural method of the mind. For example, we are taught that if you do something that is deemed wrong you are punished; if you work, you earn money, which you then use to buy something you want; if the facts relate directly to the conclusion that a thing cannot harm you, you should have no fear of it. The mind, however, works through relational logic. This type of logic works with concepts of things which can have multiple, often changing, relationships to other concepts. For example, a person may not like public speaking. When asked why, they may not be able to reference a reason. It may be that at one point in their life, they attempted public speaking and had a bad experience. Although they know the current experience is not the past one, they will avoid the current one because it has similar characteristics to the past one, because similar results are feared. A way to manage this characteristic is to periodically review associations between concepts in your mind, correcting those that are not functional, while understanding that one concept likely relates to many other concepts.

The mind will not tolerate unsolved problems. The mind is designed to solve problems. Problems of temperature regulation, emotional needs, accomplishment, understanding the world, among others, are being solved by the mind on a constant basis, even during sleep. Some of the problems it solves are quite simple: if you are just slightly cold, it will bring blood in from the periphery and tighten some muscles to generate heat. You will not even be conscious of problem solving of this nature, and, under most conditions, it would not benefit you to be. Other problems are more complex, such as how you are going to get your boss to recognize your true value to the company and compensate you appropriately. This problem will be brought into and kept in consciousness until the mind feels satisfied it is solved, likely causing sleepless nights, distraction, behaviors of frustration, etc. These two examples illustrate another characteristic of the mind: it sorts all problems as either “simple” or “complex.” If a problem is deemed simple, it will solve it without conscious involvement. If it is deemed complex, it will allow—or perhaps force— it to be solved in the conscious part of the mind. A good example of this is hunger. If the mind determines the body is in need of nutrients, it will first requisition them from its various stores; you will not be aware of this. When this solution no longer satisfies the needs of the body, you will have the perception of hunger. If you do not solve this by eating, it will heighten your perception to be aware of anything around you that could be food. Eventually, you will determine a way to acquire food. Unfortunately, the mind is not always accurate in its classification of problems. A problem like pain management may, at times, be a simple problem; if you are straining at jar lid and it is overtaxing your skeleto-muscular system, the perception will be pain in the various joints and muscles involved and the mind will encourage you to disengage the effort for a period, thus preventing injury. However, if you are running a marathon, there will be pain, and the mind will automatically encourage you to stop, without sending this problem to your consciousness. This, however, is an incorrect categorization under the conditions, and it will actually be quite an annoyance and may hinder your goal achievement. The solution is to be aware of problems of all kinds as fast as or faster than the unconscious mind, scrutinize any solution the mind makes, and solve problems correctly and quickly in reference to the circumstances and your goals.

The mind will always choose the solution that apparently requires the least amount of energy and effort. This principle is the practical manifestation of the mind’s prime objective: to ensure the survival of the body. However, not every problem is a matter of life and death, and therefore does not warrant the least costly solution. For example, if you are about to fall off of a ladder, you instinctively reach out to grab ahold of anything to stop or slow your fall, since any arrest of your fall will improve your future abilities. However, if you are skydiving, the best experience will be had by following the appropriate behaviors for exiting the aircraft and operating the parachute… which requires you to override the urge to grab at things randomly. The solution to this characteristic is to identify all situations where the mind is making decisions, give some level of conscious decision making to all of them, and, likely, move the majority to conscious decision making.

The mind does not naturally process the term “not.” It only comprehends concepts and actions regarding them. This is related to the concept of not tolerating unsolved problems. Although we navigate quite well in a world of both positives and negatives, the negative is comprehended with effort from the conscious, deductive mind. For example, if you are trying to manage your diet, and set a rule not to eat candy, you will increase your tendency to pay attention to and think about candy, which may increase your chances of eating it. However, if you remind yourself of the types of fruits you like and why you like them, you will be more likely to eat them, thus avoiding candy. You can manage this principal by translating instructions containing instructions not to do something into an instruction involving action.

Applying these concepts of how the mind operates will provide a greater functionality and productivity. To effectively operate the powerful and complex machine that is the mind requires a level of consistent effort.