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What's in Your Brain?

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In the first blog in the series on "Objectivity: The Power of Seeing Things As They Are," I presented extreme cases of extreme subjectivity to illustrate how often we overreact to situations, take things personally and make other cognitive errors. In the second blog, we established that it is possible to increase one's objectivity by reducing the "I See, Therefore It Is," meaning all of the things we make up about a situation and respond to as if "It Is," and it often just "Isn't."

Have you every wondered why you often take things personally, why you overdo things at work, or your interpretations of events are incorrect and cause you to overreact? There is a reason for this. To change this, we have to understand and acknowledge at a very basic level how our brains work, because both the cause and the solution to these situations are in the mind.

Each of us experiences the world as the subject ("I"). I am, I see, I hear, I do, I feel, etc. Everything we experience is the object ("Other" or "not I"). As the subject, you relate to everything through objective means of knowledge, which are your five senses and your mind. For example, you are walking along a path and come across a beautiful bed of roses. You see the roses; sight takes place. You have no choice in the matter. If there are roses, if your eyes are open and working properly and if your mind is conscious of what your eyes perceive, then you will see the roses. Additionally, if you, the subject, are with your mind and your ears, hearing takes place. But, if your mind is not conscious of what your ears hear, hearing does not take place. How many of you have been caught in a team meeting, lost in thought, not hearing anything going on around you, and then been embarrassed when someone asked for your opinion about the topic of discussion? Some of us cover well, some of us don't. The point is that you are a cognitive person, and you are objective when you experience through your senses and your mind "what is."

The challenge is that after initially experiencing "the object," our immediate response becomes subjective, conditioned by our mental models, our thoughts, our desires, our fears and our past experiences. I call these drivers of subjectivity. They are hardwired in our brains and are often influencing our behavior without our awareness. Simplistically, this is how it works:

It is natural for all of us to be subjective. Our brains are pattern-making organs, made up of 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. These neurons have spidery branches that reach out and connect to other neurons to form a neural net. From the time we are children, our minds are rapidly forming associations, making assumptions and drawing conclusions about everything we experience through our senses, thus creating connections in our neural net. Our brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior based on these associations, assumptions and conclusions. Our neural networks are constantly changing as we experience and adapt to the world around us, influenced moment to moment by our experiences, our thoughts and our emotions. Our brains are doing all of this automatically, constantly pruning connections while making new ones, all without our conscious awareness. What's in your brain? Do you know what associations, assumptions and conclusions are hardwired in your brain influencing your behavior?

Scientists have delineated two types of brain activities -- one that we are aware of and the other that is beneath our conscious awareness. In The Hidden Brain, Dr. Shankar Vedantam refers to these as the hidden brain and the conscious brain.

The hidden brain deals with the familiar, and the conscious brain deals with the new and the novel. When you see a new product on a supermarket shelf and rationally compare its benefits to products you already use, it is your conscious mind, utilizing your working memory, that takes in the new information and matches it against the old. All of this is happening in the part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex. Once a problem is understood and the rule to solve it, discovered, it makes no sense to think through the problem afresh every time you encounter it. You apply the rules you have learned and move on. The basal ganglia are the part of the brain that is invoked by routine, familiar activity.

How many of you get in your car to go to a specific destination, one that is familiar and routine, and end up there minutes or hours later without remembering much about your trip? Your conscious brain relegates driving to the basal ganglia, which function exceedingly well, without conscious thought, in any routine activity. When we are overreacting, misjudging people and situations, often it is because we are responding automatically, based on the assumptions, associations and conclusions that have been hardwired in our neural net and relegated to the basal ganglia. Nerve cells that are wired together, fire together.

But remember, you are the subject, and everything else is an "object" of your knowledge, perception, or awareness, and therefore not you! This means that you alone are responsible for how you respond to everything you experience in your world. No one can tell you how to respond to any person, situation or event, or anything else that you experience through your means of knowledge. Your opportunity to increase your objectivity lies in your ability to own your cognitive appraisal process and reduce your automatic reactions. Neuroscience reveals that with the brain's neuroplasticity, we all have the capacity to change in response to new information. Every time we interrupt our automatic reactions and choose a different response, we are loosening those neural connections and creating new pathways that will inspire behavior that we want, not behavior that we end up regretting. In this series, you will learn how to identify and question your underlying assumptions by bringing them up to conscious awareness for scrutiny and analysis by the prefrontal cortex... before you respond.

In the next blog, we will look at some of the common mental models that might be hardwired in your neural net and influencing your behavior without your awareness. Are you a validation seeker, a perfectionist-overachiever, a competitive warrior, a controller, or a limited and unacceptable defender?

For more by Elizabeth R. Thornton, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.