This month’s article marks the half-way point of this year-long journey to an open mind and an open heart. Reflect back on the last five articles to remind yourself of how far we have come, and to engage in one of the key principles of change – repetition. Get out your notebook, make yourself a cup of tea or coffee, and give yourself some space and time to read through and get curious about what you notice.
We are creatures of habit. The way we think, move, act, relate, and react, quickly becomes a part of “who we are” and we lose sight of the fact that at one point everything took practice. Research shows that more than 40 per cent of the activities you engage in each day are habits. This happens for a reason. Imagine how much time and energy it would take if everything had to be approached as new or unfamiliar. We would be exhausted and distracted from the bigger and deeper things in life if we always had to think about how to brush our teeth, drive a car, find food, open a door, or any other basic function of getting through the day.
As someone who has retrained my brain to perceive the world differently than how I saw it for over 20 years, I know that meaningful change is possible. Now a personal coach to support others in their journey and an increasing affinity regarding all things brain related, I spend at least a few hours daily thinking and talking about the beauty and “magic” of our most precious organ. Yeah, I’m still talking about the brain.
Your core neural pathways are set by the time you are seven years old. A combination of your DNA, your upbringing, your culture, your experiences, and the language you are exposed to, creates a unique mix that becomes you. As we grow we learn new lessons and have opportunities to replace our seven-year-old infrastructure with updated material, but some connections continue on unchanged, often unconsciously.
What makes humans stand above all other life forms – that we know of so far – is our ability to think critically, to problem solve, and to think about thinking. We can use our mind to understand our brain. When we struggle with “mental noise” we lose energy once available for being present into the abyss of a negative feedback loop of focusing on things we can’t control, which feeds itself as we will feel deflated and discouraged.
In the book Shadow Syndromes, by John Ratey, he says, “What stress is to the body, noise is to the brain.”
The busier and noisier your mind is, the less able you are to be present and mindful to the moment at hand. It is impossible to build new habits or let go of old ingrained habits that no longer serve you when your mind is busy with noise.
Ratey explains, “Internal noise shuts down the higher levels of our brain, the weakest synaptic connections, and throws the sufferer back upon the overlearned, synaptically robust behaviours of his early years.”
The best way I have found to understand the internal workings of the brain and our tendency to lose control the more we try to force and berate ourselves into new habits, is through the metaphor The Elephant & Rider.
In the Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt, we are introduced to two very different parts of our brain. The “old” part of the brain, aka The Limbic System, which we share in common with all other animals, is referred to as the Elephant. This is where our habits are stored. Our automatic systems, our subconscious, emotions and happy chemicals, and our desire for prestige and to feel good now versus long-term happiness.
The Rider is the “new” part of our brain, which is the Cortex. This is where we learn new ways of being. It is where our conscious thought, our reason, and our rationality is housed. It is our ability to think-twice before acting. The part of the brain that engages in critical thinking, mindfulness, and planning. It is pragmatic and analytical, and seeks long-term happiness versus instant gratification.
The Rider is the catalyst of our evolution into beings that can think past automatic, animalistic reactions, to make choices aligned with who we truly want to be versus who we were raised, programmed, or accidentally habituated to be. Our Rider observes the decisions already made by our Elephant, and as long as there is awareness and energy to be used, it can use its power to ‘veto’.
Haidt tells us, “The automatic system (aka Elephant) has its finger on the dopamine release button. The controlled system (aka Rider), in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It’s the rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices”
Understanding these two separate but harmonious parts of our brain will allow you to take a step back and observe your thoughts, reactions, emotions, and triggers with a new sense of appreciation and understanding. We need to practice mindfulness and acceptance in order to conserve energy needed for these two parts of the brain to work together. You cannot force the Elephant to do what the Rider wants to do. You have to coax it, gently guide it, and ultimately, have them work as a team.
So how do we get our automatic and animalistic Elephant and our pragmatic and forward-thinking Rider to work together?
In the book Switch, by brothers Dan & Chip Heath, we are introduced to a three step process to align the Elephant and Rider, get out of our own way, and enable the unique brilliance of human beings as a result.
1. Direct the Rider
Our Elephant is emotional, impulsive, and reacts on instinct. Without a clear vision and direction, you will jump from one “good idea” to the next, victim to what feels good in the moment versus what will get you to your desired future destination. When you have goals, a purpose behind your daily and sometimes tedious tasks, and thought-out stepping stones along the way, your Rider can be much more convincing and your Elephant becomes easier to tame. Your Rider needs to understand what your Elephant needs to keep it calm and content (i.e. sleep, food, exercise, meditation, rewards, and time to play). Focus on scripting out the critical moves that will continue you forward, have a clear destination in mind, and realign with your purpose weekly by setting an intention and breaking your work down into Actions that will allow small-wins and rewards.
2. Motivate the Elephant
The imagery of this metaphor is purposeful in its use of a human Rider on top of a six-ton Elephant. When the Elephant feels stuck or when it becomes out of control, there is no stopping, dragging, or pushing this animal. There needs to be a relationship and there needs to be a healthy amount of motivation. When you engage in activities that boost your dopamine, this goes directly to the Elephant as fuel. When you have a deep rooted sense of WHY, or a purpose behind your actions that gets your excited and puts a skip in your step as soon as you hop out of bed, you are more likely to keep your elephant invested in the task at hand.
Allow yourself to have fun and incorporate positive self-talk to ensure you are coaxing and soothing that Elephant. Acknowledge your small-wins and practice gratitude and pride as you focus on the hurdles you overcome and the successes towards your goals. The Elephant is basically your child-like self that is stuck in adolescence. It likes to feel good and works best when you allow yourself time to breathe in your accomplishments and surround yourself with inspiration and positivity.
3. Shape the Path
When you are too much of a Rider, you tend to over-analyze and spin your wheels without forward momentum. When you are too much of your Elephant, you are an emotional roller-coaster and struggle to finish projects or see anything through to the end. Once these two are aligned and working together, you will have more energy and a deeper connection to who you are. Set yourself up for success by tweaking your environment to be conducive to the change you want to see in your life.
Surround yourself with inspiring and empowering people who will challenge and support you. This journey is about the long-game. Where do you want to be 10 years from now? How do you want to feel? What habits do you want to be in your past and what habits do you want to adopt in their place? Tackle one habit at a time and bring mindfulness and contentment into the journey versus thinking your happiness awaits at some future destination.
Change takes time and repetition is the only sure-fire way of creating that change.
Your brain is simply trying to protect you from an unneeded waste of energy when you try to behave differently from an ingrained habit. Regardless of whether this habit is healthy or is aligned with how you want to show up in the world, it is an ingrained neural connection that saves energy when you continue to go down that path. So expect some resistance when you work to adopt a new habit. Acknowledge it for what it is, and then continue to spend energy in building a new circuit towards your new habit. Use your mind to understand and retrain your brain.
Switch by Dan and Chip Heath
The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
Shadow Syndromes by John Ratey