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The power of self-awareness: The mind (your superpower)

A woman thinking many thoughts.

Hello, 4D! How’s it going? Tuning in to your body and both sides of that fantastic brain of yours? Learn anything? I bet you have. Let’s learn more!

Recap: Our topic is self-awareness. To understand this better, we have already learned that we have both awareness and attention and that we benefit when we focus our attention on both external and internal input. We’ve also learned that we can attend to external observers—the other people in our lives, and our mind (the internal observer), making use of information provided by the left and right brain. 

“Wait a minute. I’m noticing a theme here. Awareness and attention. Left and right brain. Internal and external observers. Is it a coincidence that everything comes in pairs of some kind?”

Nope. No coincidence. These opposing or complementary twosomes are the binary elements of what make self-awareness work!

The problem is, we don’t make good use of them. 

The problem of mind-brain fusion 

In our last edition, you learned that there was a difference between the brain and the mind and that you are not a “you” without a “we.” You derive some (maybe even a lot) of your sense of self from those around you. Therefore, one aspect of self-awareness, from the brain’s perspective, is the knowledge of and response to how you differ from those around you and their input about you. This isn’t news, I know—but the fact that we are not just socially but also biologically connected may be new information to you, and it can definitely complicate things. 

For example, automatic (or efficient) processes in the massive right brain take in information from these “others” at a speed way too fast for us to notice. A good example of this is our friend Jerilyn from the first article. Remember her collision with the lady in the store? There’s no evidence that she had any analytical thoughts about the cart crash. Instead, by continuing to listen to how her body felt, she chucked the incident into the “bad box” in her brain, right alongside poor Torrence.

Entire libraries could be filled with discussions of the self as connected to others. We don’t have time to go any further into that topic at this point. Our focus will be on the individual’s internal sense of self with the knowledge that, at least in part, that sense comes from others. What we’ll focus on now is the concept of the mind as something separate from the brain.

Many people don’t know about the brain-mind split. If you ask them, they may have some words about it, but for all intents and purposes, they don’t demonstrate understanding. In fact, just about everyone walks around acting as if their brain and mind are one and the same. There’s a term for this in psychology: cognitive fusion. 

Whenever you take a sensation, urge, or random thought as truth in the present moment when it’s not, and you act on it, this is the result of cognitive fusion, and it’s basically the opposite of self-awareness. This is a problem.

Cognitive fusion? Explain it to me

It can be helpful here to think of the brain as a massive room filled with filing cabinets containing millions of life experiences from which we build our perceptions of the past, the present moment, and what we think the future will be like. This filing room is split into two halves—the left and the right side. 

The left-side files are logical and language oriented. Further, the left side has an extra room wherein our conscious awareness is housed, sort of like the Great Oz. However, the left side is severely limited in what it can process (being behind the curtain and all) and is an energy hog, leaving the brain somewhat easily fatigued. 

Conversely, the right side holds imaginative and body-oriented files with near infinite storage and processing ability. The challenge there is that the information processed and filed in the right side is not tagged with words and time and therefore is not readily understandable. The language, if you will, of the right brain is in the form of physical sensations and mental images. And as of yet, most people have not learned or been trained to interpret all of this into useful information.

But it’s possible…can you see that? Keep reading.

Now, the brain has two major functions: safety and efficiency. The brain, not the mind. 

You can say efficiency is about safety in some ways. For example, the brain’s job is to carry out many of our activities as rote processes without much, if any, conscious awareness. Evolutionarily, this was a powerful advantage since we didn’t have to stop and consult our frontal cortex on what to do when the wooly mammoth was chasing us. These days, physical dangers from nature have greatly reduced, however our brains have not yet fully evolved to compensate. We’re on our way, but we’re not there yet.

To remain efficient, the brain works mainly on associations called, “triggers,” rather than on details (which could bog it down). Triggers consist of any kind of sensory input that will conjure a memory, which may exhibit itself in thought or behavioral output. Triggers are exceedingly quick and often outside of our awareness.

At this point, then, if we’re not mindful—as in fully aware in the present moment, nonjudgmentally—then brain files pretty much run themselves exclusively on triggers—like when Jerilyn was triggered to irritation by the banging of carts. This trigger (not her assessment of it) led to a feeling of irritation, upon which she came to erroneous conclusions.

When this kind of thing is the norm—when we put our biology in charge—we run our lives on brain babble and not self-awareness.  

“Uhh…brain babble…??”

Let me explain.

Brain babble 

It had been a long day. Enjoyable, but long. I was on a training trip where I had the privilege to visit three different cities in as many days and teach a bunch of eager clinicians how to use neuroscience to treat anxiety and other mental health disorders. 

As I neared the third hour of my drive from Midland to Lubbock, I encountered an unexpected flash flood. It was frightening. I thought for a few minutes that I was a goner! Thankfully, I made it through there and finally arrived at my destination. Let me tell you, I was hungry. I went on a search for a place to get dinner.

But I had no luck. After almost 45 minutes, I finally found a hole-in-the-wall diner that sold catfish. I bought a meal and made my way back to my hotel. Now, catfish may be a lovely cuisine, but to me it tasted like mud. There I was, cold, tired, and hungry and in that moment, I heard my brain say, “Lubbock is awful!”

Flash forward six weeks. 

I flew into New York state and drove to Rochester. I was late, and I had been flying and then driving for hours. I just wanted to get into my hotel room. As I wandered around in the twilight, trying to find the front door, I passed a restaurant with a neon sign in the window with the word “catfish” on it and I heard my brain say, “Rochester is awful!”

Whoa. Wait just a minute. 

Are Lubbock and Rochester awful, y’all? Well, they very well may be, but there’s no way I could know that from my brief time in either place. In the case of Lubbock, my experience was unpleasant for sure, but I don’t know enough to label all of Lubbock awful in all circumstances. In Rochester, it was simply a trigger (the word “catfish”) that drove my brain to its negative conclusion.

These are examples of brain babble.

What if I take things a step further? What if I make decisions based on brain babble? What if, at a later time, I am asked if I want to return to either city to do more teaching—something I treasure beyond measure? I might be inclined to say a fast “no” and miss out on a wonderful time because my brain told me these places were no good. 

Ask yourself: Do you want to live your life by brain babble? That’s the real question here.

We’ve all been duped by brain babble at one time or a million. As mentioned above, those of us who are cognitively fused may have lives that are pretty much run by it. The thing is, life is simply not this simple! Tried and true, efficient activities can easily rely on triggers, but self-awareness requires flexibility and discernment, a sifting of sorts through all the noise of the brain to find what is accurate—and that’s the job of the mind.

Our mind, the superhero

Thank goodness there’s a cure for cognitive fusion and brain babble! Namely, cognitive defusion. Yes, that’s a thing (even though the dictionary and your spelling program don’t recognize it as such). 

Cognitive defusion is the act of separating the mind from the brain (by use of honing of attention in the brain) and creating an “objective observer” of sorts (the mind) to help with present-moment discernment. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. For example, the next time you have a strong emotion of any sort, before taking any action, stop and ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” and “Would acting on this feeling A) align with my best self, or B) be helpful in the long run?” Try answering these questions for yourself and see what the results are.

Then return for our next and final article on this topic, where I’ll share several practical steps to improve your self-awareness. 

About the author

Hannah Smith, MA, LMHC, CGP, is the founder of Potential Finders Network. She is also an author, blogger, coach, consultant, international board certified group leader, and nationwide trainer from the Seattle area. She has studied and practiced extensively in neuroscience-informed clinical treatment, as well as personal and professional development, and she guest lectures in academic and clinical settings around the country. Her personal and professional experience in the United States and abroad has enabled her to develop multimodal, culturally competent, cutting-edge, and relevant training programs offered in an engaging presentation style.