Who is Really in Charge?


Have you ever noticed that many times, you see the right way and you approve it as well, but you still follow the wrong way?

You walk past a bakery store, you see luscious chocolate chip cookies. You know that you are not supposed to eat cookies. They are very high in calories. And you haven’t been working out regularly.

You approve of this analysis. But guess what? Somehow, you slip into the bakery, you order a cookie and an invisible hand slips into your pocket, grabs the wallet out, pays for the cookie.
You start eating the cookie and before you even realize, the cookie is gone!!

You clearly saw that you were not supposed to eat the cookie. You approved of that observation as well, but what happened? You still ate one. Why is that?

It is because “you” are not really in charge. “You” as in the thinking, analyzing, and saying “you”, is not in charge.

Your mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. The mind is not a monolithic control system. It is rather divided into several modules that work in conjunction with each other.

It is divided into different module, each of which can take over control from time to time. And it is this divided nature that gives rise to conflicting priorities or desires.

Although our minds are divided in several ways, one of the very important division is between automatic cognition and controlled cognition.

Automatic cognition is all the activity that neural networks do without conscious cognition. This is the part of our mind, that we usually associate with intuition. This is essentially, the animal brain.

This part of the brain has gone through a lot of product cycles over the last 500 million years and it has been pretty much perfected. This automatic part is really in control.

Automatic part of the mind is very fast. It doesn’t get tired. It is also tightly connected with motivation and reward circuits of the mind. Which means it tightly controls our behavior.

This is the part that craves things. It craves high caloric and fatty food. It takes over the control from time to time and that’s why you won’t even realize that you finished the cookie.
It is also pretty much all of our cognition. We may not realize this, exactly because it is automatic.

The other division is that of controlled cognition. This is the rational part. This is the part that analyzes, uses language and thinks. It is very slow compared to the automatic part. It also easily gets tired. We all have experienced this first hand, when we have to think through something very complex, we could easily get tired.

Also, this part is not connected to motivational circuits and hence it doesn’t control behavior. It influences behavior, but very little compared to the automatic part of the mind. It also constitutes very little of our overall cognition.

Controlled cognition knows what is the right thing to do. It knows what is good for you in the long run. It knows if you haven’t been working out regularly, you are not supposed to eat cookies. Because cookies have too many calories and lots of fat.

Our rational part of the brain is relatively very new. It evolved just over recent 500 thousand years and although it seems that it is in control, that is not really the case.

Evolution tinkers gradually and it doesn’t make big and abrupt changes. Something that has evolved just recently (500 thousand years) cannot take over anything that it perfected over the long run (500 million years)

In the words of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “Evolution doesn’t simply hand over the control to a relatively new development. Evolution works in increments.”

The old automatic part of the brain, still is in pretty much in control and it calls shots about what you do and how you do things.

A popular analogy used to explain the automatic and controlled cognition is that of elephant and the rider. Automatic cognition is similar to an elephant. Here elephant symbolizes something that is large, has a mind of its own and is really in control.

And controlled cognition is like the rider of the elephant. The rider thinks that he is in control all the time. But in reality we know that it is the elephant that decides, whether to walk or not and whether to turn right or left.

Given all this, what do we do? Are we doomed to be at the mercy of the automatic part of the mind all the time? Not really.

if you want to improve your behavior, you have to think of it as elephant training.
How do you train the elephant? We saw earlier that automatic cognition is tightly connected to motivation and reward circuits. We need to work with this.

Lets take example of exercising. If you make a resolution that you are going to regularly work out, it is not going to be enough. This is why, many people repeatedly make resolutions about working out and the resolution doesn’t work.

It is the rider who makes resolutions. It really doesn’t have control and that’s why resolutions don’t work. We need to address what would motivate or reward the automatic cognition.

We are social animals and the company of another human being could be a strong motivating factor for the automatic part. Not only that, automatic processes will make sure you don’t break your social commitments. This is why if you set a date with a friend to work out, it’s more likely to be effective.

Also the automatic brain craves immediate rewards. Give yourself immediate rewards after the activity that you want to take up. In the case of workout, reward yourself immediately after the workout.

Of course you have to be careful not to reward yourself something that defeats the purpose of the workout. The rewards don’t have to be significant. Even token rewards are likely to work.
It is said that new habits take 12 weeks to form. You have to be patient and repeat the reward or motivation process.

Broadly speaking, there are 3 ways to change the mind and hence the habit or the behavior. Here are those three techniques.

1) SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors like Prozac, Zoloft)
2) CBT
3) Meditation

All of these three techniques create new neural pathways and changes the way the mind works. Essentially, they can help form new habits.

Meditation is a completely natural way to create new neural pathways and hence change your brain. Changing your brain changes your mind. Meditation can help you cultivate habits that are needed to bring you peace of mind, improve relationships and make you better at the skills that you want to develop.


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