All day long a billion details offer themselves up for our focus. And yet many of us walk around largely oblivious to our surroundings. Very few people will even notice the eye colour of the people they’re speaking to. Many people need photos to know the eye colour of their friends.
But if billions of these potential stimuli are offered to us, what makes us choose which ones to bring into focus?
Wiring. Our brain is flexible and it builds itself to efficiently do the things we often do. If someone hand-writes every day, the writing gets better and better unless some illness or injury is involved. The same goes for adding numbers. We might feel slow on week one, but by week four our brain has built a bunch of shortcuts.
When those shortcuts are super-efficient and are often used), they are often referred to as habits, and they will even often initiate themselves at specific times of day. These can be external reality things, like the way a photographer will often look at the world in ways that are different from non-photographers, or how someone might keep an ear out for the baby.
Or, we can also have internal, thought-based habits — like someone who worries, or a kid in church who sits there the entire time with their mind filled with thoughts about how much they wish they weren’t in church. We feel the urges to do those things, or think those things, due to the force of habit, just like water flows along low ground.
The popular shortcuts that we find destructive –or even meaningfully counterproductive– are not seen as habits, they are viewed as either obsessions or addictions. But to our brain those are largely the same things. They are things we feel compelled to repeat.
Why we want to repeat them is simply because nature naturally seeks efficiency, so the courses of thought most often used are the ‘low ground’ for our energy. If we’re tired and don’t have a strong flow of reality coming in, our brains will do what’s easiest –our habits– the things we practice and that our brains wire us to do very well.
If we’re struggling with alcohol, or games on our phones, porn, or anything else, plugging that brain superhighway is not how our brains work. We don’t shut down pathways in the brain, we redirect them.
It was by repeating actions that we built our brains in the troublesome way they may be. But it’s simply by repeating different actions that we can divert our thinking and steal all the traffic from our troublesome road. We can divert the energy to take another path through life that we find more productive.
But this requires us to stay conscious of what we’re really doing with our brains.
If we look at what drugs and alcohol, video games of whatever sort, as well as gambling, food, or sex, all have in common, it is that they either require our attention or they numb us. By doing either, the brain creates a way not to do the painful thinking it might otherwise do. This is a healthy awareness but an unhealthy response.
The healthy part is that, in a low energy state, our desire is to reduce the number of stimuli. These include the considerations and deliberations that can obsess our internal ego-talk. But if we’re doing it by distracting or numbing ourselves then we’ve just replaced a negative with another negative masquerading as a positive. We can do better.
The pressure –or urge– we feel to participate in an addiction will be like that kid in church. But just because we feel that urge to think a course of thoughts does not mean we need to actually think them, or turn them into action. If we think anything at all we are better to meditate on reality.
We can recognize that –in the technical brain sense– our urges makes sense. But we also know brains can re-write themselves. These two facts mean that we can take an addiction impulse, and then use it as a signal to divert our attention to a replacement activity that is something truly valuable to us. (It’s always much easier when we trade a leaning-post for a passion.)
If we’re lazy with our brains they will create more work in our lives. But if we do our best to stay as conscious of ourselves as possible, we can recognize those tugs and urges for what they really are: thought-thin prompts to start a justification narrative.
They are only thoughts. All we have to do is watch ourselves, because if we succumb to a habitual justification we often end up in self-hating loops of thought. But if we divert to something better (a book, a call to a friend, a class), we will soon find that we will feel quite positively about having converted an addiction into a healthy and rewarding habit.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.