Your Brain Is Not The Boss of You

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Your brain is like a puppy. Everything grabs its attention, and it wants to sniff all of it.

The way I like to think about the function of my conscious brain is that it is a great filterer. All my senses register inputs, and my brain handily notes, labels, sorts, files, stores, and compares them.

But, like a puppy, my brain can be all over the place.

If you've ever taken a walk with a puppy, you've probably noted that they don't step along in a straight line. Nope.

  • I hear something buzzing thing over there!
  • What is that smell?? Oooh, I've gotta roll in it. This is the best sm-- 
  • RABBIT! I gotta catch it! Let me run. I gotta run! Nope? Okay.
  • Look what I can do! Look! I can pick up this stick with my teeth! Mmmm, drool. Must chew stick...
  • Do you hear that buzz? 

If an input catches my attention, my eager brain will automatically offer a string of connections related to it - part of that impressive sorting and labeling function. For instance, if I step outside and squint in the warm sunlight, my brain might flash these connections:

  • hard-to-see,
  • can I garden today?
  • glare,
  • visor,
  • no, like sun hat better for gardening,
  • sunglasses, 
  • sunscreen,
  • lip balm,
  • where's my pitchfork?
  • or even simply, "nice day." 

Beyond single inputs, the brain's sorting function easily extends to offering strands of thoughts, or often, mini-stories.

While squinting, I might think about that time in Florida - over 25 years ago - when I got a very painful sunburn on my face and upper chest, and the whole area blistered almost raw. It hurt for two weeks, and I felt bad that I'd been so ignorant about protecting my skin.

A sudden flash of shame, remorse, and worry erupts.

This might prompt me to whip back around and grab every sun protection item I've got.

Then again, I might note that yes, today, it is sunny and warm for an early morning on a Spring day in Minnesota. That means it's 50 degrees F, and I'm wearing a light jacket. My surroundings are quite different than they were at midday in summertime Florida two decades ago. I'll make a choice that works best for the present moment.

My brain offers me data, but it is does not discriminate on its own. It is not the final Chooser of my actions or inaction. That quiet ME inside that hears my brain's thoughts and stories is the one choosing my actions, the one "holding the leash."

 From Michael Singer's book, "The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself."

From Michael Singer's book, "The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself."

PUPPY TRAINING

So, you. Quiet-Inside You. This means that you're the Alpha Dog, the Master, who can train your puppy brain not to run amok.

Granted, a playful, exuberant puppy is adorable. But, it can also destroy your house and make a mess. Stressful!

You are the Boss. You are the Author-Creator of your life story. Or, as author, Michael Singer, puts it, the Inner Observer.

Why am I making a point of this?

Because, you have a wealth of tools for experiencing the fullness of your life and potential: emotions, physicality, free will, senses... and, your mind. If you're at all like me, though, your mind likes to think it's the only one that matters. 

Here are two tips I've learned for training my puppy brain:

  • Too many choices = overload
  • What you focus on, expands.

Too Many Choices = Overload

Did you know that research has shown that your ability to make a clear-headed, confident choice diminishes with the more options you have?

When we are presented with many options, we usually fear making the wrong decision. This can be translated into simple math – when there are only two options, we have a 50% chance of choosing the right one. But when there are five options, our chances suddenly decrease to 20%. Matters become even more complicated when there are twenty options or more. Human cognitive ability cannot efficiently compare more than five options, so most of us will start looking at the first few options and then stop.
(But...)
Awareness that there may be a better option triggers the urge to find it. However, due to time constraints and human cognitive limitations, we are unable to engage in the elaborate thought process required to compare and contrast all of the available alternatives.
From PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, "The Psychology of Choice," by Liraz Margalit Ph.D.

Your Puppy Brain doesn't care about this research. Left on its own, it will react to any stimulus that grabs its attention. As soon as another stimulus beckons, it's off to sniff that.

Why do you think dogs chase their tails? Because it's there, and it grabs their attention.

You, the Boss, are aware of this now. If and when you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or stressed, ask yourself if you're drowning in too many inputs.

Make a choice to "tug on the leash" and take a breather. Invite your brain to do its sorting thing and work out how you might funnel down your inputs to a more manageable number of options.

This leads to my second tip.

What You Focus On, Expands

I'd like you to picture a leaf. See the leaf on the ground. Next, see it in your palm.

Now imagine viewing that leaf under a microscope. The size of the leaf becomes huge. Its terrain is vast; you can no longer see its edges.

Like a puppy, your brain will react to every single shiny thing that grabs its attention. Remember, your brain is a filter for your experiences. It's built to identify, sort, label, file, evaluate, catalog.

When you, the Boss/Author-Creator/Inner Observer, turn your focus to that shiny thing, it can pull you in to a rabbit hole if you're letting your puppy brain lead the way. The more you focus on something, the more closely you examine it, the bigger it gets in your field of attention.

Again, you can remember to "tug the leash." Is it in your best interest for being your fullest self to drop down that rabbit hole? Maybe that attention-grabber needs to be re-framed: try to view it as the leaf in your palm, not the leaf under the microscope.

One last tidbit. 

I do want to encourage you, Boss, to let your puppy "off-leash" to play, seek, learn, discover, experiment, and tumble with exuberance! It doesn't have to be All Training, All The Time.

Just remind the puppy it doesn't belong in the driver's seat.