By Peter French
What Is The Mind?
Learning By Repetition
Learning By Single Exposure
Learning By Imagining
How Might These Mechanisms Fit Together
A Simple But Functional Model Of The Mind
Example: A Way To Work
Example: Being Around People
Example: Post Traumatic Stress
Example: The Chocoholic
Example: Early Learning
Is Knowing Any Of This Any Use?
Hypnosis Often Uses The Model
When people have issues with their mind, like anxiety, phobias and other things they are faced with the ‘common knowledge’ that the brain is too complicated for anyone to understand and so they don’t try. And that’s a shame because you don’t need to know everything in order to see a way to help.
Let me describe a simple lighting circuit with a battery and a light bulb:
Connect a wire between the negative terminal of the battery and one terminal on the bulb. Now connect another wire between the positive terminal of the battery and the other terminal of the bulb.
You have a simple model of what happens next in your mind, the bulb lights up.
It could be more complex and refer to the atomic structure of wires, the arrangement of electrons in layers in the metallic atoms, the passage of electrons between atoms in the form of an electric current, the temperature of the filament in the bulb and any number of other physical aspects, but the complexity would hide the simpler level at which it can be understood.
So the simplicity of the model you apply to a light circut makes it accessible, it allows you to see cause and effect.
So what would it be like if you were able to learn to apply a simple model of the mind to change the way you react to situations and behave?
What I’m aiming to do here is to introduce you to some physical realities of the brain and the mind, and at the same time to introduce the notion of a model that describes how the mind works from a usable level without having to go into too much detail.
The brain and the mind appear to be two different entities in the same place. A simple analogy is often made between the brain and a computer. The electronic hardware is the analogous to the physical structures of the brain, and the software or programs running on the hardware is analogous to the mind.
This is a very simplistic analogy but one that can help explain a few things within certain constraints. The main sticking point is that the brain can create new neurons which are physical, and in a computer it isn’t possible to dynamically create electronic hardware in the same way. The common computer architectures PC, tablet or phone have a fixed hardware structure so the action of neurons is essentially simulated in software. But the essence of the analogy is sound.
Although it is often said that we (humans) know very little about the brain, if you subscribe to that point of view then you might be surprised to find the extent of the brain functionality that is known and has been proved.
If you see a human brain, it is obvious that the left and right sides or hemispheres of the brain are completely independent. The functionality of the hemispheres is different too.
Neuroscientists have shown that the right side of the brain is a parallel processor that deals with the ‘here and now’. It deals with all the inputs from our sensory organs all over the body. It notes and measures all of these inputs and creates an image that describes what a particular moment looks like, smells like, and feels like. The images are full sensory images, not just what we are seeing, but they include what we are physically feeling and experiencing in the moment. Essentially we are linked to our surroundings through the consciousness of the right hemisphere of the brain.
The left hemisphere of the brain works linearly (sequentially) and works methodically. It takes the sensory images of the present context and associates it with similar things in the past and predicts possibilities for the future. In short it makes memories and links them to similar memories and uses that to predict (or guess) what might happen next.
Where the right hemisphere works or thinks in imagery, the left hemisphere works in language, the background chatter that goes on in our brain all day everyday. It verbally links our internal view of the world with the external world.
It is fascinating to realise that the right side of the brain deals with the here and now and how we are connected to everything around us in terms of how our energy fits in with the continuum of the energy of the world around. It’s a description of how we fit in with the world around us.
The left side makes sense of it all and works out how the relationship of the individual organism (me or self) is ‘distinct’ from the continuum of the world around us. It establishes identity.
Our continuous link to the rest of the world is part of our brain chatter. It’s just that most of us don’t notice most of that chatter because we’re used to it and we have learnt to ignore it. However that chatter contains a lot of information about who we are and what is going on between us and the world out there.
That’s an overview of what goes on in the brain at a high level.
The point at which the brain becomes mind is part of a great debate.
It is debatable but the analogy between brain and computer does give some help here. The brain provides the mechanisms for learning to occur. The mind is the way we use our learning to interact with the world. Learning is a large part of creating a mind that is unique to us based on our experiences and perceptions. Some aspects of the mind appear to be genetic and some are learned, nature and nurture is the usual reference and there is some of each in all of us.
We tend to think of learning as academic qualifications requiring access to memories of abstract facts and figures and understanding gained by the connections between memories. But learning in this case is how the mind learns to do things with the body and the surrounding environment, how it is going to use what it knows to interpret things in the future, how it can change its perceptions based on new learning.
Learning is about our skills. For example how we walk without it taking up all of our thoughts. When we learn to walk the new skill becomes automatic. Conscious actions are one thing but automatic actions can be thought of as subconscious processing. That is processing events and interacting with the environment without conscious intervention. When you walk across a room to do something at the other side, you just think about where you are going, not about what muscles you’re activating, how hard to push, how much to lean this way or that. That is all automatic.
We learn by different methods.
Do you remember learning to catch a ball. It was done through repetition, someone threw the ball for you time and again, and you eventually learnt an extraordinary skill. You learned to move your hands to a place where your mind predicted that the ball would be in few moment’s time. So that you could close your fingers around the ball at just the right time to catch when it arrived.
You see it as being of little importance until you try to break down everything that is involved, then you realise it’s pretty cool. So repetition is one way to learn. And we learn many things through repetition. We perform a generalisation of this catching skill so that we can do it for things other than balls and the mechanism becomes a skill that is automatic to us.
You might notice an odd happy or nice sensation when you catch a ball because of the adulation that you received from parents or peers when you demonstrated this skill. If you never mastered the skill then you might experience a rejection of all things to do with ball related games. These are possible emotions that you learned to associate with the skill too.
Some things we do infrequently, and they don’t benefit from becoming automatic but running, catching, walking, standing up and many other functions become automatic because they are useful and frequently used.
I’m going to digress for a moment here and illuminate an interesting thing about walking. If I ask you to walk to the wall you can just walk to the wall. If I ask you to walk really really slowly to the wall then the chances are that you don’t do that very often and all of a sudden you find yourself not automatically controlling your body and arms and legs. You are having to manually control your leg and foot muscles as well as taking control of many muscles to derive the abstract thing you call your balance. And in to the bargain you will notice that while you’re doing that you can’t think of anything else. Your mind is fully employed by walking really really slowly to the wall.
By contrast if you just walk normally then you can think of many things because the walking functionality is being taken care of by an automatic part of your mind.
Walking really really slowly is an example of doing something reactively, or in real time and you have to manage it all consciously for the whole time you are undertaking the activity. Eventually you would learn to do it automatically, I know a physiotherapist who demonstrates this frequently and she does it in the same way as the rest of us walk normally. If you needed the skill a lot then your mind would do that automatically by recognising how often you need to do it.
And that is repetitive learning.
There is another mechanism where we learn by a single exposure to a stimulus. It’s the mechanism that is demonstrated in post traumatic stress disorder amongst other things.
Imagine a car accident. It’s going on and you are in the middle of it, getting more anxious because of the adrenaline in your blood stream, and your mind is working incredibly fast creating possible outcomes, possible ways out (including death) along with fear and other emotions and actions like hyperventilating. Your heart rate is increasing and you’re sweating because your body is revving up so you can call on maximum strength and speed instantly.
After the event, some people have no problems, others have issues when driving in traffic.
For most the mind has had a traumatic experience and survived. It remembers all the things it did to survive the situational context we would call a car crash. It remembers hyper ventilation, tachycardia, sweating, the stomach muscles tightening. When put in a car in traffic again it recreates all the emotions and physical phenomena because that is what was done previously for you to survive. And the organism (you) lived so the actions must work! It is a simplistic mechanism.
This one shot learning for extreme events is a phenomenon that we don’t realise is happening and we don’t appreciate that the reaction to being in the same situational context again is an automatic replay of the actions that were done before to survive.
In the case of PTSD situations, the learnt behaviour is actually unwanted, but the automatic learning system recognised it as important because of heightened emotions so it made it automatic at a single exposure.
We’re all different and everyone will react differently.
Some people use their imaginations to create situations that are unreal but possible and at the same time extremely emotional.
An example of this might be a person who continually thinks of crashing in a plane, what they themselves will miss in terms of future life and experience along with the sorrow that those around will feel. They may have no actual experience of flying or crashing to use other than their lucid and infinite imagination. For some, the intensity of the emotion and the repetition of the thoughts creates a learned automatic reaction to the experience. In this case a fear of flying has been created that has no apparent initial sensitising event other than imagination.
The imagined images and emotions replace the experienced sensory input and are interpreted by the same left brain mechanism that handles real right brain experiential input. It’s an ability that some people have to consciously create imagery that can be interpreted and and used to create new memories.
It is a hybrid of the two previous types of learning.
We can learn by various mechanisms to reproduce physical (muscular) and chemical (emotional and hormonal) reactions in our bodies. The tendency is to create a generalised case that becomes more broadly recognisable as the trigger context.
A simple and seemingly silly example can be seen with the fear of spiders (unless you are arachnophobic, in which case it is very real). Initially it usually starts by proximity to a spider or thinking about proximity of a spider and something about the situation causes extreme fear and an uncontrollable set of actions that are replayed.
Your mind is clever and it learns that certain places are associated with the presence of spiders, corners in the garden, dark places perhaps. It extends the recognisable trigger for the automatic behaviour to include these places to keep you even safer.
So your mind can pre-empt the initial trigger situation to keep you even safer.
What we have described so far is mechanisms and how we learn.
Automated behaviour includes perceptions of the world, how we have learnt to feel in certain situations.
These things come together in various models of the mind. A model describes what happens but not the exact organic mechanisms and brain chemistry. But it allows us to see how things fit together from a higher level functional viewpoint.
For example Freud came up with a model of the mind that involves the:
- The conscious – our waking control of body and behaviour
- The sub-conscious – an internal mind that has its own volition
- The Ego – reality as we perceive it
- The Super Ego – our morality or moral compass
- The Id – our basic instincts
You have probably met this before, it goes some way to explaining how we are but for my purposes it leaves a lot undescribed. I’ll leave you to research that and draw your own conclusions.
If we take the information about learning and the brain functionality, we can see a pattern that forms a model of the mind from a functional point of view.
In this model there is no sub conscious with it’s own volition, only sub-conscious processing that simplifies our interactions between body and environment. Sub-Conscious processing being a learned thing like walking or picking things up which we can do at the same time as doing higher level thinking.
So we have some basic elements about learning and learnt behaviour to include:
- Learning that is important becomes automatic. So things like walking become automatic tools that the rest of the mind makes use of. This includes physical and emotional actions, emotions are after all physical reactions in so far as they are a release of certain chemicals in the brain and body.
- Learning that is accompanied by an emotional context becomes important instantly, and importance is often determined by the level of emotional arousal. These tend to be contexts that require instant action. Our memory stores the actions along with the emotional level and the trigger context.
So here’s a description of what’s going on in the basic mental model:
While we are interacting with our surroundings the right side of the brain is taking in all our sensory information and bringing it together as a description of what is happening right now, and I’ll call that the current context.
The current context is passed to the left side of the brain to deal with and this happens continually.
The left side of the brain makes a quick check for important things by comparing the current context with remembered contexts that have an emotional content associated with them.
If it finds one the it initiates playing the series of actions that are associated with surviving in that context.
If there is nothing urgent then check if something similar ever happened and predict what might happen in the future, and prepare for anything that may possibly occur in a general way. If something urgent is predicted then start the stress response so that we can improve available strength and speed. Get on and deal with it.
Along with that there are certain housekeeping functions that go on all the time:
Has anything important happened that was similar to a previous context so that we can create a general case to cover multiple important event contexts.
If we are doing something repeatedly it considers if it is important enough to learn it in an automatic way and store it for general use.
Any automatic actions that are in progress can be left on autopilot or given modifications.
New automatic actions can be started if required.
Keep looking for evidence that supports our view of the world.
A few notes:
- When the mind is subject to adrenalin it becomes tightly focussed. It tends to ignore the peripheral things that are unimportant and deals with events in a narrow minded way.
- When dealing with events as they occur, emotions occur along with other physical reactions.
I know this model is simple, perhaps too simple. It’s not intended to describe everything but it can describe a surprising amount. And it’s a useful tool. I’s also a place to start considering the effect of other mechanisms that are going on in the mind.
You are at work and there is something that needs to be done urgently. You find a new level of urgency within you that lets you work faster and more effectively.
It happens again and again and your mind generalises the effect to all your work.
Unknown to you, you were actually increasing stress levels in your body and that raised your cortisol and adrenaline levels and that made you focus better and work faster.
Your new way of working is to raise the level of your stress hormones and you start to do that each and every day. It’s no longer something you have in reserve! It’s the only way your mind and body know how to do work.
It gets you promotion and your career progresses.
Eventually you start to feel tired. It’s the effect of continually raised stress hormones. It can have other physical effects too that have been documented in many places.
Congratulations, you taught yourself how to be continually stressed state at work. You can choose to make it better or worse now that you understand it a little better.
At some point in your life you were care free and laughed and played along with everyone else. Then one day something happened. From a grown up point of view it didn’t seem serious but for you it was different. Perhaps you were taunted because something you did or said, something that the others around you didn’t understand or thought was stupid. It made you very upset, it made you wary of the things that people can do to other people. You didn’t like the feeling of hurt or being upset or the betrayal from one or more people around you.
You started to be careful about what you said and how you acted in the company of others, you were never care free again and you started to avoid gatherings of people, even your friends.
In fact it’s now got to a stage where just thinking about being around a lot of people makes you feel uncomfortable and on edge.
You can see the initial emotional one shot learning, you can see generalisation. You can see an issue that has become automatic.
I agree that this is a simplified pop psychology situation, and it’s contrived too. But versions of this happen, I have worked with such people. The symptoms occur automatically and feel uncontrollable, and I see it as a learned behaviour. Not one that was chosen but one that happened by circumstance.
This is based on an actual account of PTSD, no names, no pack drill.
A small squad of soldiers are patrolling. They are sent to investigate a possible munitions storage location in a civilian area. It’s been raining. They enter the property, some of the squad go upstairs some start searching the downstairs. There is a baby buggy in the kitchen with wet wheel marks going to it, the soldier goes up to it and pulls back the blanket and is hit by one of those extreme ‘oh shit’ moments as he does it. The bomb is defused successfully. The soldier has trouble sleeping for the next 25 years.
It’s hard for civilians like me to understand the train of mental events, and my research and experience have demonstrated that we can’t second guess the real problem. So here is the soldier’s explanation of the anguish.
- He failed to follow protocol! All that training and he blew it because he was in a hurry.
- He’s been trained amongst bullets and bombs and has accepted his own death as being inevitable at some point. But through his negligence he could have wiped out his mates. The rest of the squad could have died because he got a simple thing wrong.
He sees it when he sleeps. He has other trigger situations. He hyperventilates, sweats and goes rigid at decision times and he feels like he can’t control it.
He found help and he’s OK now.
You might identify with this example or you might not get it at all.
How do you eat your chocolate, do you let it melt in your mouth or do you chew it or do you do it another way.
Were you ever given chocolate as a treat for being good and it made you feel even better.
Does chocolate make you close your eyes for a moment and just think Mmmmmm.
How many times has chocolate made you feel so good.
If you understand those things then maybe you can’t pass the chocolates in the supermarket without picking up a couple of bars, and feeling that expectant feeling in your taste buds, that’s why you always pick up the chocolate last, so you don’t have to wait long. Even when you’re trying to be good you find yourself reaching for the chocolate in the shop at the checkout.
It’s all a learned behaviour with an emotional content. You just do it, and it’s so hard to not do it because your mind thinks it’s keeping you safe. And the emotion here is a positive one, it makes you feel so good.
The context of being near chocolate starts a cascade of events that will make you feel so much better about yourself. When you get your chocolate fix.
And then afterwards you can feel the guilt at being so weak willed and useless. So you make sure you hide the wrappers and all traces so that it’s deniable.
The mind recognises situations that make us feel good. Even when sometimes it’s not what we want at all.
A small child has learned to walk and is walking around in the kitchen. The doors on the cupboards feel smooth and the tiles on the floor feel cool under the bare feet. The she touches the oven that is baking something. The oven door is an old one and it is hot, so hot that the baby cries. Mum picks the child up quickly and sharply and shouts “oh no”, the baby hasn’t got a serious burn but the shock of the pain, being apparently shouted at and grabbed and shaken (accidentally) form a memory along with the context of warm and oven door.
Again a contrivance. I don’t remember it happening to me, but I always remember to be careful around cookers and ovens. It has kept me safe so far in my life.
This is an example of why that one shot learning is there. It’s a safety mechanism.
I never walk in front of moving buses, I don’t pick up snakes, I don’t consciously grab the wrong end of a kitchen knife, and I don’t walk on broken glass. These are all learned behaviours and I’m sure you can come up with more.
One strength that we humans have is a drive to know why and how something happens or works.
When it comes to how your mind works we have been told time and time again that it is too complex for anyone to understand. And that is a thing that is repeated time and time again so we have learned that it’s far too hard for us to understand. It’s so understandable that we don’t even try to look for an explanation.
If all you take from this article is the ability to see a plausible mechanism that explains how we interact with the world then you have a new way to perceive how we automatically keep ourselves safe and how that same mechanism can cause issues.
It’s a model that lets you see why your behaviour in any particular context is what it is. It also lets you know why, and how some behaviours (that you don’t really want) appear to be so automatic and outside your conscious control. The behaviours can often be seen as being as strong as the emotion that is associated with the automatic behaviour.
Several therapies appear to be based on the spirit of this model.
With our understanding of this simple mechanism we can see how Emil Coue, a therapist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in France developed suggestion and auto-suggestion therapy. Suggestion therapy was actually a form of hypnosis or ‘sleep’ as he refers to it in his book. Auto-suggestion therapy is a system of issuing suggestions to yourself in order to change your perceptions and reactions and how you think.
It is something that has so many off shoots today. It is a mental learning technique based around repetition. The most famous phrase being:
Every day in every way I am getting better and better!
It has similarities to mantras that are used in some forms of meditation. It is a repetitive phrase or series of phrases that we can say to ourselves, which are combined and repeated to ourselves with emotional involvement.
Essentially you bask in the good feelings brought by imagining your self getting better and better each day.
It works! And it lets you create new ‘wanted behaviours’ in the same way as the repetitive mechanism can cause unwanted behaviours. It requires persistence to reach the goal.
There are more modern versions of this but they are attempting to reprogram our responses in the same way as the Coue method.
Systematic desensitisation is a way to systematically deal with problematic behaviours and reactions. It was developed by Joseph Wolpe in the middle of the twentieth century. It has a lot in common with Extinction therapy that is commonly used today.
Essentially it involves getting calm and then concentrating on the problem situation. If the emotions rise then stop concentrating about the problem situation, get calm again and repeat.
Like everything in this article it seems too simple. Mentally rehearsing a situation and feeling calm instead of experiencing severe emotion has the effect of reducing and eventually removing the emotion from the situation.
In our simple model if there is no emotional content in a context, there is no need to automatically react to it.
Practice really can make perfect.
Hypnosis can make use of the model to correct existing unwanted behaviours. One facet of hypnosis is that it can bypass some of the mental filtering that the mind protects itself with. Hypnosis allows a better communication with the mechanisms of the sub-conscious or unconscious mind. The chatter of the mind (that comes from real sensory input) can be turned off and suggestions delivered either directly or indirectly. Indirect lead the client to use their imagination, the imagination that causes the problem becomes the solution.
Hypnosis is a very powerful and successful tool.
Once we get past the common conception that the mind is too complex to understand, which is something that most people suffer from, then the use of a simplified functional model of the mind becomes a useful vehicle for understanding situations. It is also instructive in directing changes in the mind.
As I have presented the model, it allows several methods to install new automatic behaviour. These installations can be accidental which is often the case in unwanted behaviours. They may be conscious and pre-determined too, in a way provided by so many therapies that change or add automatic behaviours to the mind.
- My Stroke of Insight
By Jill Bolte Taylor
- Pavlovian fear memory circuits and phenotype models of PTSD
Luke R.Johnson, JenniferMcGuire, RachelLazarus, Abraham A.Palmer
- The Body Remembers Continuing Education Test: The Psychophysiology of Trauma
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – Causes
NHS Choices Website
- Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion
1922 Emil Coue
- THE SYSTEMATIC DESENSITIZATION TREATMENT OF NEUROSES.
Wolpe, Joseph M.D.
Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease: March 1961 – Volume 132 – Issue 3