Sys­tem re­boot

You can re­pro­gramme your think­ing, writes Katie Byrne

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - WELLBEING -

AFRIEND of mine is a ‘catas­trophiser’. He tends to fix­ate on the worst case sce­nario and can al­ways be trusted to con­trib­ute a Cas­san­drian point of view to every con­ver­sa­tion. We brought him up on it re­cently. “What­ever soft­ware you’re run­ning has a virus,” I said. “You need a full sys­tem re­boot,” I added. “Con­trol-Alt-Delete!” laughed an­other friend. The sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the brain and the com­puter have been well doc­u­mented, even if neu­ro­sci­en­tists dis­miss the anal­ogy as far too sim­plis­tic.

Ex­perts ar­gue that the brain is ana­logue while com­put­ers are dig­i­tal. More to the point, there is still a lot we don’t know about how the brain works.

Then there’s the small mat­ter of size. Com­par­ing one of the most com­plex ob­jects in the uni­verse with some­thing that you can buy in the Har­vey Nor­man sale for €599 is a lit­tle crass. And this is be­fore we even con­sider con­scious­ness, tran­scen­dence, mys­ti­cism and all that jazz.

Still, when it comes to the rep­til­ian part of the brain — the part re­spon­si­ble for au­tonomous pro­cesses — I like the com­puter/brain anal­ogy. It re­minds me that the mind is man­age­able: just change the in­put and you change the out­put.

I some­times think of lim­it­ing be­liefs and cog­ni­tive dis­tor­tions as out-of-date pro­grammes or un­nec­es­sary pro­cesses run­ning in the back­ground of a com­puter.

Maybe you’re run­ning a ‘not good enough’ pro- gramme, or a ‘vic­tim’ pro­gramme or a ‘women can’t be trusted’ pro­gramme. What­ever it is, it’s mak­ing your sys­tem run less ef­fi­ciently and it needs to be unin­stalled.

In or­der to do this, you first have to be­come aware of the un­con­scious be­liefs that you have ac­cepted to be true. In the same way that you check task man­ager to see the pro­grammes run­ning on your com­puter, it’s im­por­tant to take time out to ex­am­ine the lim­it­ing be­liefs that may be hold­ing you back.

Once you’ve recog­nised the pat­tern, you can use the CBT tech­nique of cog­ni­tive reap­praisal to re­write it by forg­ing new neu­ral path­ways in the brain. This tech­nique in­volves re­fram­ing your in­ter­pre­ta­tion of an event in or­der to change the emo­tional im­pact it has on you. This is es­pe­cially help­ful if you’re a catas­trophiser or an over-gen­er­aliser or a blackand-white thinker.

So, in­stead of think­ing ‘I’m late — I’m al­ways late — I’m go­ing to lose my job!’, you would take the time to look at the sit­u­a­tion from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.

For in­stance, ‘I’m late but I stayed late last week so my boss will prob­a­bly un­der­stand’ or ‘I’m late but there’s noth­ing I can do about it so I may as well just take the time to gather my thoughts and pre­pare for the day ahead’.

This isn’t bright-side think­ing. If any­thing, it’s crit­i­cal think­ing. The ob­jec­tive here isn’t to deny that the event is emo­tion­ally stren­u­ous, or sweep it un­der a sil­ver lin­ing.

It’s sim­ply to ac­knowl­edge that in every prob­lem, there is an op­por­tu­nity, or a learn­ing curve.

This type of think­ing rewires the brain and, over time, turns off the out­dated pro­grammes, re­plac­ing them with neu­ral net­works that are much more ben­e­fi­cial to your over­all out­look.

Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Dr Rick Han­son, author of Hard­wiring Hap­pi­ness, ex­plains this process best: “Neu­rons that fire to­gether wire to­gether. Men­tal states be­come neu­ral traits. Day af­ter day, your mind is build­ing your brain. This is what sci­en­tists call ex­pe­ri­ence-de­pen­dent neu­ro­plas­tic­ity.”

Else­where, just as a com­puter has many short­cuts to in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity, so too does the brain. As the world’s best pat­tern recog­ni­tion ma­chine, the brain’s feed­back loops re­spond to ex­ter­nal cues to in­crease pro­cess­ing speed.

You don’t just crave cof­fee every morn­ing be­cause you’re still half asleep. You crave it be­cause your brain as­so­ciates it with morn­ing time.

Once you re­alise that neu­ral path­ways are ac­ti­vated by en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors, you can hack them to your ad­van­tage.

For ex­am­ple, stud­ies show that the best time to change a habit is while on hol­i­day, when you are in a new en­vi­ron­ment with no fa­mil­iar ex­ter­nal cues.

As with all com­put­ers, the brain also has sys­tem glitches, other­wise known as ‘cog­ni­tive bi­ases’. There are hun­dreds of these er­rors in judge­ment that we ha­bit­u­ally make — and many more be­ing dis­cov­ered.

Ex­am­ples of cog­ni­tive bi­ases in­clude False Con­sen­sus Ef­fect — the ten­dency for peo­ple to over­es­ti­mate the de­gree to which oth­ers agree with them, and Peak-End Rule — the ten­dency for peo­ple to judge an ex­pe­ri­ence based on how they felt at its peak and at its end (ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships be­ing an ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple).

It’s worth pay­ing par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the Neg­a­tiv­ity Bias, which is the ten­dency for things of a more neg­a­tive na­ture to have a greater ef­fect on us.

When we ac­cept that the brain’s CPU, so to speak, is hard­wired for neg­a­tiv­ity, we re­alise the im­por­tance of fo­cus­ing on what we have over what we don’t have.

Like sys­tem glitches, we can’t re­pro­gramme cog­ni­tive bi­ases — we just have to be aware of them. How­ever, we can re­pro­gramme our think­ing, and it’s eas­ier than you may think.

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