Monday 25 September 2017

System reboot: You can reprogramme your thinking

The health benefits of tea are resounding. Photo: Deposit.
The health benefits of tea are resounding. Photo: Deposit.
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

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I sometimes think of limiting beliefs and cognitive distortions as out-of-date programmes or unnecessary processes running in the background of a computer.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