Your Brain the Super-Computer
Your brain is the most sophisticated super-computer in existence. Want proof?
Your brain is the most sophisticated super-computer in existence. Want proof? How about the fact that it learned to speak your native language between the ages of 3 and 5 years old without any formal education? How many computers do you know who can do that? Oh yeah, you can’t really “know” a computer, can you? Read on to learn more about your super-computing brain.
We are learning machines! From the moment we are born, some say even sooner, we begin experiencing and learning from the world around us. The brain is like a sponge during the first seven years of life…it craves input!
In order to understand how our brain works, we need to introduce the terms “conscious” and “subconscious” mind. By the way, for simplicity, I sometimes use the terms “mind” and “brain” interchangeably. Otherwise, we would have to enter into a huge philosophical debate about what each term really means because to-date science has no idea how “awareness” works. The same goes for the terms “subconscious” and “unconscious”.
Conscious and Subconscious Mind
Now, if you think of your subconscious mind as the computer hard-drive and your conscious mind as the computer screen you would have a pretty good idea of the difference between the two.
The hard-drive is full of data – your personal history. Details of every significant emotional event are stored in there. There’s an elaborate library, a highly sophisticated database, and a DVD video collection of your life stored on the hard-drive of your subconscious mind.
But all you can do consciously is see what happens to be on the screen at the time. In other words, you can direct your awareness from one place to another but not to the entire contents of the computer all at once - nor would you want to! Talk about an ADD moment!
Often times we don’t even exert the effort it takes to direct our awareness. We just let it float from one thing to another as if on auto-pilot. For instance, while watching movies or reading a good book we let the story capture our attention and guide our awareness. But when we are not directing or having our awareness directed we enter into “default mode”.
Concentration and Awareness
Drifting off into a daydream like state is what happens when we relax and let go of our decision to concentrate our awareness. When we are not directing our awareness, or having our awareness directed we enter into what Jud Brewer, PhD refers to as default mode. It’s comparable to leaving the computer idle for a time until the screen-saver comes on and does its thing.
Default mode is an automatic processing of habits of thought. I think that is why some say to “be careful what you say when you talk to yourself.” We feel the way we think, then we think the way we feel, which causes us to feel the way we think and so on.
We feel the way we think because our neurological activity gets converted to bilogical activity. In other words, when I am thinking negative thoughts, I am sending little brown frowns throughout my body. Conversely, when I am thinking positive, happy thoughts little yellow happy faces are flowing through my body!
I wish it were as simple as saying something positive to yourself to change the way you feel. If it is not already a habit of thought for you then you will need to program it in through the four stages of learning something new in order to make it part of your default mode.
If it is our “habit” to find ourselves ruminating about negative thoughts (typically past-oriented) or perseverating on worries, anxieties, and fears (future-oriented) then whatever we do in the present moment is going to stop as soon as we stop directing our awareness. (Or as soon as the comedy we are watching is over because we will soon enter back into default mode.)
Concentrating our awareness is a manual activity rather than an automatic function, i.e., it is something we decide to do consciously. We must exert energy to direct our awareness consciously, which partially explains how and why we become mentally exhausted after a long day at the office or school.
Concentration takes more energy if we are not interested in what we are concentrating on. In fact, if we are passionately interested in what we are concentrating on we tend to become absorbed into the experience and feel energized rather than depleted.
Concentrating on things we have no interest in is like pushing uphill… Concentrating on what does interest us is like riding downhill.
Even when we do choose the option to purposefully direct our awareness, such as writing an article, we do not have complete control over it. Other thoughts tend to wander around in and out of our awareness.
We have the ability to direct our awareness wherever we choose, provided we are granted access by the “network administrator” – our subconscious mind.
Searching the Database of our Subconscious Mind
If I asked you to think of where you were and what you were doing on September 11th, it is likely that your brain almost instantly accesses a significant emotional event that occurred in the fall of 2001 – complete with images, thoughts, sounds, and feelings from that day.
September 11th is an example of how quickly our brain can search the database of our subconscious mind and access requested information… it’s also an example of how intensity can “burn” an explicit memory network into our database with only one experience.
Here’s another example – think of your kindergarten or first-grade teacher. Do you not almost instantly access memories of what the teacher looked like, what his/her name was, and/or even a few memories of you and the teacher interacting?
And when was the last time you had occasion to think of this person? That’s right, usually, it has been a very long time… Yet almost instantly upon request your brain did a database search and pulled up a profile of the teacher.
Very few middle-aged adults can remember much about their second-grade teacher. The emotional significance of being in the first grade was more intense than the second grade. This is because the brain is efficient – Only the most significant emotional events, positive or negative, get stored in the database.
The Network Administrator – Your Subconscious Mind
The subconscious mind performs an incredible number of functions on its own, and thank goodness for that! How would you like to have to decide, “What should I be doing with my pancreas right now?”
It even makes independent decisions about what to allow into your awareness and what not to allow, based upon its own perception of what is good for you. For example, if something traumatic happened to you before you developed the coping skills to deal with it, your subconscious mind would likely decide to repress it – block it out of your awareness – until it “decides” you can handle it.
Once you have developed the psychological equipment to cope with the event, your subconscious mind would then allow all or a portion of the memories to surface for processing. This ability of the mind is referred to as a defense mechanism called repression.
In my work with people, I have found that when our subconscious mind perceives that we don’t want to know something, it will block it out for us regardless of our ability to face it. For example…when I hit an impasse with a client where they “can’t remember” what comes next they usually say “I don’t know”. I almost always I ask – “Do you want to know?” Almost always they reply something like “nope!” or “not on your life!”
My clients usually find it curious – even amusing sometimes that they are aware that they don’t want to be aware. This suggests that the subconscious mind knows when your conscious mind doesn’t want to know… and being your faithful servant…it makes an independent decision to block whatever that is out of your awareness.
We explore some of the ways the subconscious mind deletes and distorts incoming information from the world around below:
Symptoms as Metaphors for Subconscious Conflicts
The subconscious mind is very symbolic and metaphorical. Many professional helpers see symptoms as metaphors symbolic of the client’s internal experience. These are usually subconscious “solutions” to internal conflicts such as those outlined in the list of defense mechanisms below.
For example, when a person would like to do one thing, but can’t seem to stop doing another, it indicates that there’s a conflict between the conscious mind and some part of the subconscious mind. In other words, part-of-me is aware that another part-of-me is doing something of which I don’t consciously approve - something that may even interfere with my goals or needs.
A good example of this is when I consciously determine that I’m going to lose weight and yet I repeatedly fail to stick to my nutritional plan (we don’t like the word “diet”)… I try and try to stick to the plan and feel very upset “with myself” for caving in again!
Another term for such internal conflicts is cognitive dissonance — Two cognition’s (elements of knowledge), usually one conscious and the other subconscious, are in direct conflict with each other. The two opposing cognition’s are located in and encoded onto separate neural networks in the brain. They create anxiety that steadily intensifies until the subconscious mind employs a “solution” to the conflict from its list of defense mechanisms.
List of Defense Mechanisms
Here we explore a list of defense mechanisms employed by the subconscious mind to ward off anxiety and protect the conscious mind from emotional pain. The amazing ability of the subconscious mind to protect the conscious mind is at the root of many “symptoms” and problem behaviors encountered in counseling, therapy, and personal growth.
Rationalization – Subconscious justifications, excuses or reasonings given to make a behavior seem logical — “A student fails the final he didn’t study for and says… “I couldn’t have passed it anyway – that teacher has it in for me.” Rationalization is included at the beginning of any list of defense mechanisms because it’s so frequently recognized as “being defensive”.
Projection – Attempts to banish or “disown” unwanted and disliked thoughts, behaviors, and even “parts of self” by projecting or attributing them to someone else. Maybe as simple as blaming someone else – “He should have let me off on that ticket but that cop was trying to fill his monthly quota.” Or as complex as seeing and experiencing a repressed or “disowned” part of self in another person – e.g., an excessively passive person marries an excessively angry person – both experience their disowned “part” in the other.
Introjection – The opposite of projection – subconsciously “takes in” to self an imprint (or recording) of another person including all their attitudes, messages, prejudices, expressions, even the sound of their voice, etc. This is healthy if the imprinted material is helpful advice, warnings, or other lessons from parents and respected others — unhealthy if shaming messages from parents, hatred, or aggression is turned inward on self.
Identification – An ability available very early in life that children use to attach themselves to certain qualities, emotions, and attitudes of someone else…especially during the modeling period between eight and thirteen. This helps the child further develop the Adult Ego State and the Parent Ego State.
Simple Denial – Unpleasant facts, emotions, or events are treated as if they are not real or don’t exist. — a person told that their spouse was killed in a motor vehicle accident acts as if he/ or she is still alive. (Not consciously lying)
Addictive Denial: Simple denial and addictive denial are similar, but the “denial” associated with addiction is really much more complex than simple denial, because it is referring to an elaborate SYSTEM of defenses that create a delusion for the addict or alcoholic that is OK for them to drink or use drugs even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is destroying them.
Isolation – Separation of memory from emotion…can remember and talk about the trauma but feels no emotion — the Person talks about the incident as if it is someone else’s story which is accomplished by taking Third Perceptual Position.
Sublimation – Redirection of impulses into socially acceptable activities — normal and healthy, such as when the sexual impulses of adolescence is channeled into sports and competition.
Displacement – No list of defense mechanisms would be complete without displacement. This defense reduces anxiety or pressure by transferring feelings toward one person to another — commonly known as “dumping on” someone…e.g., man is mad his boss and kicks the cat when he gets home, or blows up and yells at his family.
Repression – Painful, frightening, or threatening emotions, memories, impulses or drives that are subconsciously pushed or “stuffed” deep inside. It takes a lot of energy to keep material “stuffed”…energy that could be used for more productive living. Healthy if the person does not have the psychological defenses available to deal with it.
Suppression – Painful, frightening, or threatening emotions, memories, impulses or drives that are consciously pushed or “stuffed” inside as a defensive maneuver. Again, it takes a lot of energy to keep material “stuffed”.
Conversion – Mental conflict converted to a physical symptom… e.g., a soldier on being deployed into battle is conflicted about his desire to serve his country but believes it is wrong to kill for any reason develops paralysis, blindness, or deafness with no medical cause.
Regression – Giving up the current level of development and going back to a prior level… and older child under stress begins wetting the bed or sucking a thumb after a long period without that behavior. In extreme cases of PTSD, an adult could regress into a child-like ego-state and curl up in a fetal position on the floor unable to communicate.
Reaction Formation – Over-compensation for fear of the opposite. Two conflicting parts of self, one is strengthened while the other is repressed. For example, an overly nice and agreeable person may have a lot of repressed hostility and rage of which they are completely unaware on a conscious level.
Fantasy – Imagining being a superhero, winning the Olympic gold medal or Retreating into a dream world of times past. Fantasy can be unhealthy if it happens when action is required instead. Healthy when used to go back and finish the unfinished business of the past or simply for sentiment and nostalgia such as exploring high school yearbook or family album. Fantasy is so commonly experienced that many people forget to include it on their list of defense mechanisms.
We will explore more indepth how these defenses function at the level of personality in an upcoming series about the ego-states of Transactional Analysis. Sign up for this newsletter to be notified of all future releases.