Our brains are divided into 2 physical elements (called hemispheres). They work both in their own right, and together. Information constantly flows from one side to the other to create and unify how we process our thoughts. We can see these 2 elements quite clearly as individual components. That’s the physical part of the brain, but we can’t see our mind on an X Ray or a scanner. The mind is often referred to as “what flows through the brain”, and though we can’t see it, it also has 2 parts, there’s a conscious mind and an unconscious or “deeper” mind. The best way to understand the difference is to imagine a huge iceberg, with only the tiniest bit poking above the water line. The body of the iceberg is below the water line, and gets stronger the deeper you go, until you get to the point where it is embedded into the land at the bottom of the ocean.
Our conscious minds i.e. the tip of the iceberg, can only process about 7 bits of cognitive information at any one time. For example, if as you are reading this you are saying the words in your mind as well as using your eyes to read them, then that’s 2 bits used up already. In our conscious mind, we process time in a linear fashion. We have a definite sense of the past, the present and the future. Everything can be placed in chronological order. It’s easy to say, “I want to go back to how I used to feel”, but in reality these words dissociate you from that reality, as your cognitive mind knows that’s not the current situation. This is important because you can only ever experience the moment you are actually in. It’s always NOW. When you remember something from the past that makes you feel a certain way, that’s your mind-body responding to it as if it were happening again. In that moment, it is.
When you remember something and totally immerse yourself in the memory, you see what you saw, you hear what you heard, and you feel what you felt, then your imagination re-creates that moment and you experience it again as if it is now. In this way, we can time travel back and forth in our minds.
That’s because when we imagine something like this we are using our unconscious mind: it has no concept of time as a linear process. The present moment is all that ever exists. This can be a blessing and a curse depending how you let yourself think. If you are about to do something, let’s say take an important test or exam, and you imagine how badly you might do, or think you will fail, then in reality you are creating the neurological pathways to fail. Your mind doesn’t know the difference between imagination or what’s “really” happening, and that includes how we process time. So, if that’s how you think before the event, when you come to take the test you are going to activate the pathway you have already created for failure, because neurologically you have programmed yourself that way.
“If you think you can, you can – if you think you can’t, you can’t” Henry Ford
As a therapist and a coach, I have worked with many actors and high level athletes, and one of the most effective exercises is to get them to imagine the future event going exactly as they want it to. I get them to create the movie exactly as they want it to play out in their minds eye, as if they were really there, and I then guide them step by step through the process of being totally in control and performing their tasks perfectly. The key is to imagine it’s really happening right now, this creates neurological pathways that can be used “for real” when you come to do it in “real time”.
Exercise: Think of something you want to achieve, whether it’s being able to walk past a vending machine without buying chocolate, or give a presentation to a group of people without fear. Be very clear before you begin about exactly what it is you want to be able to do. Here’s a quick checklist before you watch and listen to the exercise:
- Identify what you want to be able to do
- Think of a specific situation or location when you will do this
- Furnish your mind with a detailed image of everything you can see and hear around you when you are in this place
- Think about how good it will feel to be able to do this with ease and confidence
- Tap the side of your hand and take 3 deep breaths, make sure you blow out through your mouth and exhale for longer than you inhale.
- Now watch the video
Like all mind based exercises, this one works better the more you repeat it. No one ever strengthened or toned their body by doing one set of abdominal curls! And your mind is like a muscle. It needs training. When you do a biceps curl, the specific fibres in the muscle get stronger with each set. Pretty quickly you develop a muscle memory and can do the exercise with ease, leading to greater rewards and efficiency. It’s exactly the same with your brain. Your thoughts and what you imagine work like a biceps curl for your brain.
The more you focus on how you have failed in the past, and imagine how you might fail in the future, the stronger those negative pathways get. Neurologically you create your reality before it happens by strengthening these mind maps.
The good news is that by distorting time and imaging you have already changed, you create an alternative future, the one that you really want.