The Neuroscience of How Your Brain Narrows Down Your Possibilities and How to Expand Them
Even before you’ve had a chance to think about how you react to any of life’s opportunities, your brain has already narrowed your responses down to a small range. The actions you take only represent a percentage of what action you could potentially take. You may not even be aware of the countless other possibilities that exist.
Every time you log into Youtube, you notice dozens of customized suggestions for what video you should watch next. How does Youtube know what you are likely to enjoy? There is nothing mysterious going on here — it uses an algorithm. Using our viewing history as an indicator, the algorithm curates videos that are similar to ones that we’ve watched before. Our brain isn’t much different. It uses shortcuts to show us those aspects of reality that we expect to see — based on our memories, beliefs, and most commonly felt emotions.
“We are each wearing a unique set of diffracting lenses over our eyes and filtering earphones over our ears which select and translate what we see and hear before they reach consciousness. We are all exactly like pilots, each flying on our own uniquely programmed autopilot.” — Eugene Shea
THE ALGORITHM OF THE BRAIN
Imagine you are looking for your friend amidst a crowd of hundreds of people at a concert. How does your brain know to ignore everyone who does not match the description of your friend who is a tall brunette with blue eyes?
Your brain stem employs a full-time gatekeeper. This gatekeeper filters out the billions of signals that your brain must process at any given time. It latches onto “important” information so you don’t have to bother processing the unnecessary noise.
Higher-order and logical decision-making happens in the prefrontal cortex. You could consider this front part of your gray matter as the “boss.” If the cortex is the boss, the Reticular Activating System (RAS) is the gatekeeper. It can be thought of as the secretary that decides which calls to put through to the boss. The RAS is a bundle of nerves in the brain stem that screens out impulses significant enough to be passed onto the cortex. How does the RAS know which calls to route to the boss?
Data that is in line with our subconscious beliefs, values, and past experiences gets first priority. It has larger and stronger neural connections because of its emotional charge. This emotional charge is what got it to our subconscious in the first place.
The infinite possibilities of where we shine the light of our focus are immediately narrowed down. The set of possible actions we will likely take decreases as well because it is based on what is allowed into our conscious mind.
While this “autopilot” mode can save time in an emergency, it has a downside. What about all the opportunities we may have missed because a potentially life-changing call wasn’t routed to us in the first place? What about all the possibilities that lie dormant because we do not even believe that we could turn them into probabilities and realities?
What about all the new educational and motivational videos that YouTube is not showing us because we’re so used to watching the same old drama shows we’ve watched in the past?
EXPANDING THE FILTER OF POSSIBILITIES
Learning is key to expanding our perceptions but so is unlearning. Most of our important beliefs and values about life were shaped in the first 7 years of our lives. Often we are not even conscious of how they dictate our actions. We end up thinking the same thoughts every day. We go through the same motions as the day before and then wonder why we get stuck in a rut. We are rarely aware of how much of reality we filter out even before we have a chance to rationally think about it.
Luckily there’s neuroplasticity — our brains’ wonderful capacity to adapt and change. By becoming present and focusing our mental energy on the possibilities of what could be, we prime ourselves to perceive the world in new ways. New perceptions lead to new thoughts which lead to new behaviors — which ultimately lead to a new experience of the “reality” we call our life.
VISUALIZATION: MEMORIES OF THE FUTURE
Visualization is not just a lofty new age tool. It’s a neurobiological recipe for expanding our awareness to be able to take advantage of opportunities we would otherwise dismiss.
“Your beliefs act like filters on a camera, changing how you see the world. And your biology adapts to those beliefs. When we truly recognize that our beliefs are that powerful, we hold the key to freedom. While we cannot readily change the codes of our genetic blueprints, we can change our minds and, in the process, switch the blueprints used to express our genetic potential.” — Dr. Bruce Lipton
When we set an intention through a mental image, we create new neural circuits. The more often we visualize the result of our intention, the more we reinforce that circuitry. When we add emotion into the equation, the limbic system moves that intention into the cerebellum as a memory. Once this “future memory” is in our brain’s memory bank, our secretary, the RAS, can use it to narrow down our beam of attention just as it uses our memories and beliefs. It will thus allow us to notice the situations or people that can help bring us closer to realizing our goal. They may have been there all along, but our brain did not let them through because it did not think they were important.
From the perspective of neuroscience then, visualizing our goals and feeling the associated feelings is effective for at least two reasons:
1) It adds our intention to our memory bank through which our brain filters down our focus. It tells the brain our intentions are important. This opens our eyes to things that will help bring about our goal.
2) It triggers a state of disequilibrium which is meant to get us to act on our intentions. When we hold an intention and are not acting in line with it, the body sends us a signal in the form of discomfort. The brain wants to close that gap. To do so, we must either take the necessary action or change our intention. If we do neither, the body will keep releasing chemicals that correspond with a feeling of “something’s missing.” We then experience these chemical signals as negative emotions. Often, when we feel negative but don’t know why, it is because the body is aware that we are not acting in alignment with our heart’s intentions.
OTHER WAYS TO EXPAND YOUR PERCEPTION
Examine your most basic beliefs about yourself and life. Identify your disempowering beliefs — the ones that are keeping you in fear or holding you back from taking calculated risks in line with your heart’s desires. Become aware of these beliefs and notice how they affect your daily life. Most disempowering beliefs point to a lack of belief in ourselves — in our worthiness or ability to learn and overcome difficulties. Life has shown that you know how to overcome difficulties — you’ve done it so many times! And you are worthy and deserving of being here just as everyone else is — why should you be the exception on this planet of seven billion lovely beings?
Seek out fresh ideas about what’s possible. Find a few different role models. Read about people that inspire you and how they’ve overcome difficulties. What sort of mindset do they have about themselves and life in general? What do they believe to be true about the possibilities of achieving something that hasn’t been done before? Can you start seeing your own life through that lens more often?
Commit to doing something new and out of your comfort zone at least once a week. See how many possibilities that opens for you. Perhaps in doing something new lies an answer to a question or a problem you have been working on. When you commit to doing that new thing, you will feel the rush thanks to a spike in dopamine. Your brain is always excited to learn and to take in new stimuli. Change up the order of your morning routine.
By expanding your perceptions, you expand your conceptual knowledge of life. Through new experiences, you can turn that knowledge into wisdom. Wisdom then helps you navigate through life’s inevitable difficulties. Your brain is wired to expand. When you don’t you feel pain or discomfort. Embrace being a life-long learner and explorer — that is where the joy of the journey lies!