Sadly, many of us live our lives like a ping pong ball – bouncing from thought to thought and shooting up, down, off of the table, and across the room erratically depending on the ideas zipping around in our heads. It can be exhausting, anxiety-provoking, and maddening.
I know. I did it for far too long.
I’m here to tell you that there is a better way.
When you realize that your thoughts are not facts – not even close – life gets a lot easier. You don’t have to believe, get distressed by or act on them. All you have to do is observe them, like a movie. It can even be quite entertaining at times! Think about them. And then, decide how you want to respond to them.
Let me explain.
Where Do Thoughts Come From?
It might be helpful if we first look at where thoughts come from. At the most basic level, we know that a thought happens when electrical impulses fire sequentially in your brain. However, science doesn’t know exactly how thoughts are produced from this neuronal activity or how to specifically define what a thought is in biological terms. There is even some difference in opinion as to where thought actually happens.
In the Brain
The traditional more scientific explanation is that several neurons firing in a pattern together in the brain comprise a thought. The MIT School of Engineering’s article What are thoughts made of? explains it like this:
The human brain is composed of about 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) interconnected by trillions of connections, called synapses. On average, each connection transmits about one signal per second. Some specialized connections send up to 1,000 signals per second. ‘Somehow… that’s producing thought,’ says Charles Jennings, director of neurotechnology at the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research.”
You may be surprised to find that some do not believe that thought is confined to the brain. The article, Where Do Thoughts Occur?explains:
Thoughts aren’t confined to our brains — they course through a network that expands to our bodies, perhaps eliminating, at times, the need for complex thought. The notion that we think with the body — the startling conclusion of a field called embodied cognition — flies in the face of long-standing views….But dozens of studies over the past decade challenge that view, suggesting instead that our thoughts are inextricably linked to physical experience.”
Outside the Body
And then, you have the more spiritual explanation that thought originates outside of the brain and body. This theory posits that there’s a central, communal energetic reservoir of thought which our individual brains tap into, express through neuronal activity, and decipher. The article, Where Do Our Thoughts Originate, proposes:
The brain does not create our thoughts, but rather processes them and tries to adapt them to our ability to understand and function….The brain is the Central Processing Unit and receives thoughts in the form of a code from an external source and then processes the code.”
Ekhart Tolle tells us that thought originates from a “collective mind” of humanity in this video. He explains it as our individual minds “picking up” on a common thought – jealousy, for example – and then our subconscious adding our own personal references to its expression.
Thoughts Get Tinted By Your Subconscious Brain
No matter where you believe thoughts originate, one thing’s for sure, your brain thinks subjectively through a subconscious filter. Each of us experiences the world uniquely because our brains add their own “special sauce” when giving meaning to events and incoming stimuli. This subjective filter is determined by your physical brain function, memories, beliefs, and attitudes about yourself, others, and the world.
These subjective influences are shaped largely in childhood, are typically below your conscious awareness, and determine how you respond to the world, act in relationships, and think of and talk to yourself. Your brain also filters your thoughts through the person you are, what you know, and your mindset at the time of thinking. For example, it probably is no surprise that a depressed brain has more negative thoughts.
Your Brain’s Natural Tendency Is to Think Negative
Your brain has innate tendencies, of which you probably aren’t even aware, called cognitive biases that help keep it feeling happy and safe. While these inclinations were originally built-in to help our species survive, they color your thoughts and tilt your brain towards unease and unhappiness today. Some ways your brain is biased are:
Your brain is naturally negative. This trait, called negativity bias, actually began as an evolutionary advantage. Your brain’s top priority is always your survival, not your happiness. It’s constantly scanning the environment looking for signs of danger, ready to activate reflexes and secrete hormones and neurochemicals preparing you to fight or flee. It’s going to want to err on the side of caution and safety every time.
Your brain learns from and holds onto anything it considers a danger or loss with much more gusto than something neutral or pleasant. Bad memories even get stored differently.
Your brain tends to make judgments with the most accessible and available information which, as we know, is not always the most accurate. People typically judge the crime rate being much higher than it actually is because that is all they see in the media.
Availability bias comes into play when someone is strongly affiliated with a political party or religion. The group’s viewpoint becomes the most readily available to the person and becomes the “right” one.
Your Brain Favors Short-term Rewards
Your brain has a natural tendency to focus on the short-term. Knowing this, you can work with your brain by setting short-term, tangible goals that will lead to accomplishing your long-term, overall goals. Whether quitting smoking, losing weight, or sticking to an exercise routine, your brain will keep more motivated and you’ll have more success by breaking the goal into smaller steps. Don’t forget to celebrate and internalize your accomplishments along the way to keep the dopamine and motivation flowing.
Your Brain Likes the Chase More Than the Reward
Have you ever focused on a reward and then when you received it, felt a sense of loss? Blame your brain.
It’s all too easy to get caught up in a cycle of wanting, getting, and regretting, and before you know it, your brain has formed an addictive pattern. Becoming aware of this bias in your brain and interrupting the chase/reward cycle is key. It can be helpful for a person to realize that the urge to continue a behavior is really just their brain wanting to engage in the chase.
Your Brain Likes to Feel “Right”
To your brain, uncertainty is a threat which sets off the alarms. Your brain wants to feel “right” to return to a sense of calm. Because of this, it’s all too easy to confuse being right with the smug feeling of being right. It’s not the same thing, but it makes your brain happy. Knowing that this is your brain’s tendency, you can learn to consider all available information and perspectives and train your brain to become comfortable with uncertainty to counteract this slant. Uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing. Think about it. In it, lies all possibility.
These are just a few of the ways your brain is biased. You can find more here.
How to Work with Your Thoughts
So, how do you know what to believe when even your brain is working against you? You have to intentionally become aware of, observe question, and work with your thoughts. That’s how.
Contrary to what a religion or your parents might have taught, you can’t control the random thoughts pop into your head. It’s simply impossible and leads to its own kind of suffering.
However, you can control how you respond to your thoughts. You don’t have to believe, get distressed by, or act on them. Instead of unconsciously going wherever your mind wants to go, you can consciously take control of and guide your mind in a different direction by working with your thoughts.
Here are five ways to do that.