A Look At Your Mind Under the Hood
How we think our minds work and how they really work are two very separate things, and this difference can be the cause of a lot of unnecessary suffering in our lives: we may give up on ourselves, on our hopes for change, or be harsh with ourselves for simply being a human. In this post, I hope to teach you more about how your mind operates under the hood.
This post draws on the conclusions of neuroscience about how our conscious experience, including emotions are constructed in a moment-to-moment way, as summarized in the excellent book How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett. This neuroscience background has some profound implications for developing more effective ways of approaching your emotions and your mental health. Let’s get started!
The Commonly Accepted Story of Your Mind
The most common story we are told about our minds comes from the now-outdated idea of a Triune Brain. That is, we as humans possess brains that have three parts to it:
1) A “lizard brain” that is responsible for responses of instinct and survival
2) A “mammalian brain” that includes more recognizable emotions (which more accurately can be described as affect that we interpret through the lens of emotion) – you may hear this referred to as the limbic system.
3) A “human neocortex” responsible for rational thought, logic, and speech.
This idea places us at the pinnacle of evolution rather than at a very nice view of the ongoing process of it. According to this narrative, we humans are locked in an endless battle between our emotions and our rationality, trying to tame our “inner beast.” If we engage in behavior that we regret out of impulse, we may feel like we are simply insufficient in some quality like “I lack discipline,” or “I’m too emotional.” This is a skewed story we are telling ourselves, and part of a fixed mindset.
However, the biggest misunderstanding that comes from this common story of our minds is that our brains are primarily reactive to our environment. With this comes the notion of our minds as an objective perspective on reality – one that can occasionally be swayed by emotion for sure, but that can otherwise find the most sensible positions given enough time to think.
This misunderstanding comes not only from popular messages of psychology and neuroscience, but also our own lived experience: that is, we experience our thoughts and emotions as reactive to the events in our lives. You said you didn’t want to visit with my family over the holidays – of course I’m angry!
What I aim to convince you in the rest of this post (and an additional one focused on emotion). is that this idea is actually a falsehood – One that has a lot of cultural and experiential backing, but that is nevertheless inaccurate and, in many cases, harmful to us.
What do I mean by harmful? Many of our problems in relationships stem from the inability to step outside of our own perspective to understand that the meanings and connections that are automatic to us are foreign to others. Many harmful ideas that infect our institutions like racism, sexism, and transphobia draw their roots from the idea of essentialism – that people and things have essential properties. My view is the only correct view on reality.
Toward a Different View of the Mind
Rather than reacting to the world as a passive recipient of stimuli, our brains instead actively construct our experience, through the power of learning and prediction. That’s not meant in a “manifest your destiny” quantum physics magic way like in the book The Secret. What I mean is that our brains are inherently predictive in nature, not reactive.
The best way I can think to describe human consciousness is that your conscious experience is your brain’s best understanding as to what is going on both inside of you and outside of you and their integrated meaning in a moment-to-moment way. It is a simulation of the outside world, not a direct replication of it.
Whenever a YouTube video is uploaded, the way that it’s stored is not with a tiny piece of information encoded for every pixel for every single frame of the video. Instead, to save space and processing speed, the site only needs to keep track of when pixels change from one frame to another. Starting with the predicted pixel saves space because it leverages the fact that the pixels in the video aren’t random.
Our brains work the same way – honed in efficiency over the span of eons, they start with prediction and then incorporate information from our sense receptors (eyes, ears, etc.) to confirm or correct the prediction. Just like the YouTube video storage saves space, this way of doing things is metabolically advantageous – it ultimately saves your body energy in its quest to stay alive. If the prediction gets confirmed, it becomes part of your conscious experience, if not, our brain updates its model of the information it’s receiving. This process all happens extremely quickly, below the level of our conscious awareness. Our brain’s predictive processes are always running, and are referred to by neuroscientists as intrinsic brain activity.
If you had any feathers, the idea I’m suggesting here would be likely to ruffle them. This concept of how our brains (and consequently minds) work flies in the face of what we are taught and our direct experience of the world. Because this idea is so foreign, let’s go to a few experiential examples:
In a moment, try closing your right eye and picking a point straight ahead in your field of vision. Next take your left thumb and hold it up a little bit to the left of that point (about a third of the way to the periphery of your vision). If you’re still focused on the point in front of you, what you will notice is that there is a spot where your thumb disappears and your brain fills in your vision with what’s behind it in the background.
What’s happening here? There’s a spot in your eye where instead of rods and cones, there is an optic nerve that transfers sensory information. This spot is normally accounted for by information from our other eye, but when it’s closed, there is no information to correct our brain’s prediction, so what you see is your brain’s prediction of what was behind your thumb.
If our brains were reactive rather than predictive, you would see nothing there instead of what your brain fills in.
If you’ve ever stepped off of a treadmill or exercise bike and felt like you were walking on air, this sensation wasn’t due to anything being different about your legs, but instead because of your brain’s prediction of how fast your body is moving. Given a few minutes, the brain receives enough feedback to update its predictive models and the sensation goes away.
The holistic, predictive way that our minds work can also be seen in action in the way that we process words as we read. For example:
“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrods and snetecens as a wlohe.”
If our minds were reactive rather than predictive, reading in this way would not be possible.
If you’ve ever mistook someone for a friend in a public place, what’s happening in your brain in moments like that is it is constructing an image of your friend, and your brain is receiving visual signals from your eyes that confirm or refute that prediction. The same can be found in your first impression of this picture:
If you momentarily saw the picture as giraffes grazing instead of heavy machinery, this is likely because you brain is launching predictions based on the many, many images you may have seen in the past of giraffes grazing in the sunset, framed in just this way.
Similarly, when your brain processes this image…
Before correction, it may evoke the concept of a horrific crime scene, particularly if you’ve watched and/or listened to your fair share of the True Crime genre in the past.
These corrections have been pretty quick, let's try this one. How does your mind process this picture?
Once your mind is able to link what you are seeing with the concept of an aerial shot, it is able to make sense of the defined camel shadows on the desert background.
Let’s take a look at what happens when your brain is not as quick to correct its predictions. Take a look at this photo of a parking garage:
It may take a bit more time, but once your brain figures out what’s going on (that it involves a reflection in the water, and where the boundaries of the water are), it then has the correct concept to impose on the image, changing your experience of it. Let’s try another one:
This is an AI generated image, and more likely than not, you do not like looking at it. The reason for this is that, while the picture uses a number of recognizable shapes and seemingly familiar parts of objects, they do no coalesce into a coherent whole that matches any context your brain can understand. This is unpleasant to look at because your brain is trying to process what’s happening in it and unsatisfyingly not reaching a conclusion because there’s none to be reached. This is a condition neuroscientists call experiential blindness and would be how you experience life if your brain never used concepts/predictions.
(Side-note, for someone who engages in constant self-optimization, it is likely difficult to tear yourself away from trying to categorize the image, even though you know it's not possible).
One more purely visual example is this optical illusion that first appeared in the American Journal of Psychology in 1930 of the Young Woman/Old Woman (perhaps that time period's version of The Dress?):
Some people are first inclined to see a young woman, with her face turned away, her jaw-line leading up to her ear just below her hair and a necklace around her neck; Others are inclined to see an old woman whose mouth is the young woman's necklace, her nose ridge is the young woman's jaw-line, and her left eye is the young woman's ear.
The interesting thing to me about this image is that most people can see it both ways, and in fact can switch back and forth between which way they are seeing it. However, most people do not feel able to see it both ways at the same time, instead switching quickly back and forth. This shows how our brains apply concepts directly to organize and determine our conscious experience of our senses.
If you're tired of the purely visual examples, here is an interesting auditory one. It's called the McGurk Effect and is well-demonstrated in this video:
These examples allow you to peer under the hood of how your mind works in the interest of better understanding it and working with it. You may be wondering what do all of these optical and auditory illusions have to do with mental health? The connection might not yet be clear. What this means for our experience of emotions will be covered in another post, but for now here are the main takeaway points from this one:
1. Your brain works via prediction rather than reaction. Your brain evaluates incoming sensory signals in the context of its own predictions, but the predictive process is what’s always running during consciousness (intrinsic brain activity).
2. Your brain uses the concepts that it already knows from your history in order to make sense of new information.
3. It can cause momentary bodily discomfort to receive information that does not fit your preexisting concepts or ideas. This is likely one reason it is difficult to convince someone who believes in a conspiracy theory to believe otherwise – it takes effort to update your mental model of the world, rather than updating your experience of the information about it.
In the process of developing a better understanding of your brain and your mind, it can be helpful to have the assistance of a licensed therapist. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.