Updated: Apr 20
There’s this thing that my husband and I do when the other person seems to be somewhere else in their mind, we say they’ve, “gone Bahamas”. But the truth is, it’s rarely the Bahamas, usually, it’s some internal dialog that I’ve suddenly gotten hooked on that cut me off from relating with the outside world.
My mind wanders to an earlier conversation, something I said to a colleague that didn’t come out quite right, or what item on my to-do list will have to go undone today because there’s. just. too. much. to. do., or at midnight, what if I don’t have enough food, the right food, to fill the kids lunches in the morning - OR, when I’m cozy and snug in my bed, did I remember to close the dog door, on the other side of the house, so the raccoons can’t get in and commit mayhem in my kitchen?
Ohhh, the conversations I have with myself.
Our minds travel, every moment they travel to such remote distances, that to track it all would leave us incapacitated. So our brains are designed to prioritize what is more or less significant. I can order a chai latte at the coffee house with all my particular preferences for taste and temperature and not think about each syllable, intonation, necessary breath, movement of my mouth, activation of salivary glands to moisten* (eeek) er, ah, wet my whistle, vibrate my diaphragm - well you get the point - it would be exhausting to do the simplest tasks if I had to think about every discrete nuance.
Fortunately, much of our brain activity is automated so that we don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to think about breathing, our heartbeat, digestion, or every little movement that goes into sipping the cup of chai I just ordered (especially that strangely satisfying experience of sticking my pinky out).
That old myth that we only use 10% of our brains is not even partially correct.
Rigorous scientific study and the use of state of the art brain imaging has lead Neuroscientist’s to debunk that claim, heartedly. In fact, throughout the day we use 100% of our brain but only about 5-10% is available to our conscious awareness.
The "10 percent myth" is so wrong it is almost laughable,” according to neurologist Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore (1). "It turns out though, that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time," Gordon adds.
Fascinating, right? So, if only 5-10% of our brain is available to conscious awareness and it’s clear to me that should I shift my attention, then some of that 5-10% shifts to something else based on activity in another part of my brain.
Let me say that another way. The [wo]man behind the curtain is in charge (a reference to the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz for those out there that haven’t memorized every part of the movie like some people I know [me]).
There’s a whole lot of stuff happening in that 90-95% of my brain that is not just dedicated to bodily functions.
The process our brain’s go through in order to determine what to focus on is still quite a mystery, but what we do know is that all forms of stress - emotional, physical, metabolic, etc. - contribute to how much of that focus is engaged in our present moment experience.
Just by being alive you’re aware of the times when you’re on your game and the times when you’re not. Likely, you can make direct associations with what was going on with you that day you almost (wink) shouted profanities at someone when they cut you off in your car. You were running late for a meeting, you just came from a relaxing lunch date with friends, or maybe you had a car full of groceries that spilled all over the trunk.
What may be more difficult to determine is if you had enough sleep the night before, or had the right balance of nutrients for breakfast, or were somewhere else in your head thinking about a stressful situation from your past - priming you for a more reactive response to the current threat to your safety.
Our reactivity is largely a product of the 90-95% of our brain activity that is outside our conscious awareness.
For survival, our brains are designed to have a default response to a threat. For some it’s to fight, other’s to flee, other’s to freeze - or some combination of the three depending on the situation. Our bodies go into a state of hyperarousal - they become highly aroused by initiating a predictable set of internal systems to respond to the threat. Our pupils dilate so that we can see our target more clearly, our digestion slows so that we can conserve energy to respond to the threat, adrenaline floods our system to boost stamina.
It is well established that the brain uses more energy than any other human organ, accounting for up to 20 percent of the body's total haul (2). Despite only accounting for 2% of the body's total weight.
Thus, in the midst of a stressful situation- energy must be conserved and diverted to the lungs for delivering oxygen to our muscles, to the muscles for mobilizing fight/flight or freeze, to our brains for the release of endogenous (internal) pain killers- just in case we fall, or get hit, or break a nail, so that we don’t skip a beat by reacting to the pain (until later - OUCH!) - Our brains must sacrifice, must default to the part of the brain that is automated and uses the least amount of energy. The deepest most difficult to access part, referred to as the reptilian brain.
The part of our brain that allows us to thoughtfully consider all the minutiae of a situation, then reflect on possible strategies whilst simultaneously acknowledging the corresponding consequences, is the part of the brain that is least likely to be consulted in the event of a threat. This part of our brain is the neocortex - it is the outer layer of the brain and the complexity of it is what sets us apart from other species in the animal kingdom. It's this complexity that consumes so much nutrient rich energy and must sacrifice and loosen its grip on our energy supply - shutting down much of our executive functions (flexible thinking, rational thought, organizing, planning, attention, inhibition, etc) for the greater good of the body, for survival.
So what can we do about how we react? Are we captive to some kind of predetermined response to a threat? Yes and no.
Our reactions become automated through rehearsal and reward.
If - as a child we were exposed to repeated conflict at home, loud voices that dominate, expect our silence, and render us invisible, we may respond to conflict, especially raised voices, as adults in a similar manner. Maybe we avoid conflict altogether, maybe we shutdown and our impressions go unspoken, maybe we cut off relationships before we get too close, or maybe we escape into substances, sex, shopping, food, or some other way to numb out.
Regardless of our adult adaptation, what maintained our survival at an earlier time in our life became our default strategy. Through repetition, in the midst of highly emotional experiences, combined with the reward of, let’s say, not dying - we automated our reaction.
What can we do about it?
Can we think our way out of our default responses? Can we use the 5-10% of conscious awareness to change that colossal whale of brain activity outside our conscious awareness? For many years this was the way - psychologist's assured us that if we change our cognitions (thoughts) then we can change our behaviors. But now, we know so much more about how the brain works - how the brain changes.
The brain changes through repetition, strong emotional states - hyperarousal, and reward.
Repetition of positive affirmations alone won’t cut it. The reward center is buried deep in our brain - deep, deep in that 90-95% of brain that is generally out of our conscious awareness, the emotional brain.
That part of our brain that mobilizes our body into action when it detects a threat.
That part of our brain that is reflexive.
That part of our brain that is all or nothing.
That part of our brain that is this way or that way and nowhere in between.
That part of our brain that has no space time continuum. Yesterday is today.
So, unfortunately, repeating phrases is just not enough to break through that barrier into all of our unconscious material. At least, not enough to facilitate lasting results and deep transformative shifts. But all is not lost, we can learn to access a line of communication with the cloaked colossal whale in our brains.
The process is both delicate and bold. Elegant and messy.
And so, what if I told you that you could learn to work with the whale? Tap into its deep, mysterious, haunting songs and swim through that infinite ocean of you - connecting you to its wild, boundless nature so that you can integrate it into your experience and be more in harmony with the present moment.
You most definitely can!
We're going to explore that and so. much. more. in the next Neuroscience Brain Candy Blog ~
In Gratitude & Health,
1 - Boyd, R (2008, Feb 7). Do people only use 10 percent of their brains. Scientific American.
2 - Swaminathan, N (2008, April 29). Why does the brain need so much power? Scientific American.
The title of this blog was borrowed from the title of the Pixies song - Where is my mind?
Check out the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8gl918x2Cg&has_verified=1
*Go here for an article about the science behind why people don’t like the word moist: