This is a quick one. I just learned something for a fascinating book I am currently reading called “A General Theory of Love”. It involves how we learn and how we can get trapped in patterns of thought, simply from the way the brain absorbs, encodes and retains information.
Your brain is an association machine. Things that have an experiential link to each other light up more circuits in the brain and a stronger connection is “felt”. As an example, If I say “train” and “tracks” there has a stronger resonance in mind than If I say “train” and “computer”. In fact, not only is the neuronal activity for “tracks” heightened (as it has a strong association with “train”, but the neuronal firing for “computer” may actually be inhibited, as for most people “computer” has little to do with “train”. As a further twist, if you are familiar with using your laptop on a train as you go to work, the circuit for computer may well become active as you have learned to associate the two, say, more than someone who has no significant mental connection between a train and a computer. The mind loves to make connections between things, that is how it learns and retains information. It is the reason that the phone number 555-9999 is much easier to remember than 483-9203.
This habit of association is also a factor in mood. If you are feeling anxious, anything in your mind that has anxiety associated with it will become preferentially active and come into consciousness. Old experiences of anxious situations are more readily remembered and more details of the actual situation are recalled when the mood is congruent with the remembered experience. The same is true is if you were sad. Unhappy times come to mind automatically and unconsciously and are replayed in detail.
But there is another level. Not only do sad or anxious experiences light up and become predominant when we are feeling the corresponding mood or feeling, but experiences that would counter the prevailing emotion are inhibited! So you are anxious, and your mind, working the way it works, actually prevents you from conjuring up thoughts and feelings that are in contradiction to your current mood. Its easy to see why anxiety and depression get such a foothold in us if we are susceptible. The mind actually prevents or inhibits feelings or thoughts that would change our present mood. Its also easier to see why its so hard to break out of a bad mood.
This associative connection is an automatic and unconscious reaction. Once we are aware of the mind’s tendency to lock us in and try to throw away the key, we can consciously take up a new position. We choose to become aware and consciously create a positive focus to counter the automaticity of our brain’s function. We become present in the moment we are in, and accept the feeling without resistance. What you resist, persists, as resistance just encourages the brain to create more associations. Anyone who has been told to “try not to think of a pink elephant” knows this acutely. Focusing on compassion and kindness to ourselves swings the associative power of the mind in the opposite direction. Although this may take some significant conscious effort and attention, as the momentum of the mind in a sad or anxious mood is considerable by its links to sad and anxious experience, and further energized by its willful ignorance of the soothing thoughts or feelings.
But we can consciously change the direction and use the minds associative power for our benefit. It just takes patience and knowledge of how the brain has learned to learn – and use that power to our advantage.
As an example, cultivating a feeling of gratitude, even in the face of adversity can redirect the mind’s associative power to help you see more gratitude and additionally, block access to negative or painful emotion. For this to be effective, a significant emotional commitment to bringing gratitude and appreciation into your mind (and heart) will help you use the mind’s power of associative recall and begin to change the direction of the negative feeling state. Developing a daily practice of presence will strengthen your ability to see when you’ve fallen prey to a unconscious and destructive feeling pattern (as in the default state of the brain, see previous blog post) and create a conscious pathway to access the positive aspects of your brain’s ability.