Let’s talk about your brain. That beautiful, three-pound organ between your ears is a powerful pattern recognition engine.
What does that mean?
You know how people see faces or religious figures in everything from water stains to toast? Well, that’s a psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia. It’s the brain working overtime to make patterns out of things where no pattern exists.
If you’ve ever looked at a cloud and thought it looked like a bunny or two horses playing poker – you get the idea. Buying a new car and suddenly noticing all of the other cars on the road of the same make and model is a good example of pattern recognition.
This is how humans learn things. If I hold up a red ball and a blue ball, a toddler knows that they are both balls.
Negative experiences make for stronger patterns. Phobias and PTSD are extreme examples of this. This is part of how we’ve survived as a species. We only needed to see one of our tribe members eaten by a saber-toothed tiger to know that big animals with sharp teeth are dangerous.
But we can also use what we know about pattern making and pattern recognitions to make intentional positive changes in our lives.
The Easiest Way To Create A New Habit
Habits are behavioral patterns. Things we do over and over without actually consciously thinking about them.
If you want a good example of how habits rule your life, try looping your belt in the opposite direction. Feels weird, doesn’t it? Notice that you usually lead off with the same leg whenever you begin walking and switch that up. You may notice a slight discomfort.
Habits are built upon highly efficient pathways in our nervous system.
Let’s say you want to create a new habit – something positive. For our purposes, let’s say you want to begin a meditation practice.
First, start with the smallest unit of behavior you can think of that moves you toward your goal. Something so small that it would be ridiculous not to do it. If your goal was to get in shape – the
little behavior might be – putting on your running shoes when you get home from work. In our case, we are going to close our eyes and follow our breath for thirty seconds. Anybody can do that.
Next (here’s the magic), link that small behavior to something that’s already a habit. I’ll assume you brush your teeth every morning and that you don’t even have to think about it. So you’ll pick the stimuli of putting your toothbrush away and the taste of fresh mint to close your eyes and watch your breath for thirty seconds.
There’s disagreement about how long it takes to create a new habit, some say 21 days, others say 60, some say more. So just check in, and when you feel like this new micro-meditation has become automatic, you can add to it. Now you’ll sit on the floor for two minutes and close your eyes, etc.
Over time you can build an automatic meditation practice.
Change your Beliefs
Beliefs are also patterns. They are simply things we hold true, but generally, we don’t think about or analyze the. We are awesome at constructing logic to rationalize our beliefs.
Our beliefs influence our behavior. If I believe that I can never be a good piano player, I might never take lessons or, if I do, I might not practice so hard. I won’t become a good piano player, and my belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We have this cognitive distortion called confirmation bias. This says that we tend to believe evidence that supports our already held beliefs and we disbelieve evidence that contradicts our beliefs. Look at political and religious disagreements as great examples of confirmation bias.
Some beliefs serve us, and some do not. So let’s say that you have recognized an idea you have that doesn’t serve you well. For example, I can’t get into shape. If you hold such a belief, I’ll bet you can present a boatload of evidence to back it up. So first recognize that you weigh that evidence so highly because of the belief.
Now, let’s change that belief.
First choose an alternate, more empowering thing you want to believe. For our example, we’ll choose: If I choose to, I can get into shape.
Now, look for and make a note of every piece of evidence you can find to support that belief. Write it down and review it regularly. Add to it over time. Maybe it’s things like: I can easily drink more water. Maybe it’s: when I watched what I ate, I lost 5 pounds. Challenge yourself to dig deep and find and place emphasis on evidence for the new belief.
It’s uncomfortable to hold competing beliefs, that’s what we call cognitive dissonance, so the one you feed is going to win.
It might take some time to change, and it might happen faster than you think. Remember that your behavior is going to change to support the new belief – so make sure it serves you.
Intention Drives The Bus
I’ve saved my most powerful piece of brain-changing advice for last. Intention.
One of the things I teach my martial arts students is never to threaten anyone. Why? One important reason is that you’re training your brain not to follow through. If self-defense is justified, do it. If it isn’t, keep your trap shut. There’s no in-between. Keep your trap shut and be a person of your word.
Intention—more than any other thing you can choose—drives our behavior on a conscious and unconscious level.
When you want to tie your shoes, you set the intention to tie your shoes, and your body follows the pattern. When you were little, you needed to remember step-by-step what to do, but now it’s a pattern you don’t need to think about consciously.
A training exercise I use with my students is to have them practice mentally setting an intention before they do anything. Before I pick up a glass of water, I will mentally say, “pick up the glass” then I do it. So I am training myself to act intentionally.
In martial arts, holding the intention “punch through this guy” makes your body act accordingly. I get to skip lots and lots of instruction that way – my students teach themselves a lot of the time.
A very handy way to use intention is before interacting with people. If I know I’m going to meet with someone, I will set a positive intention, and my brain will do it’s best to carry it through. I might create the intention that, in this interaction, I want this person to feel incredibly important. Another good intention for interaction might be, I am going to make this person feel comfortable.
Negative intentions towards others leak out in your behaviors. Someone who is perceptive enough will detect them. Everyone with average mental faculties will at least pick up a slightly uncomfortable feeling.
You can set intentions for almost anything. Before going to a party, set the intention that you are going to meet someone interesting and have a great conversation with them. Before going to work set the intention that you are going to have an emotionally positive day.