Brain research provides useful insights
The Kansas City Star
Want your infant to learn speech faster? Want to lose weight? Want to better motivate yourself to get out there and rake up all those leaves in your yard? Brain research may offer some useful insights to help you accomplish many of your goals.
The public broadcasting system (PBS) has a program on brain research that reveals the inner workings of your mind. A young woman is seen repeating over and over again what at first clearly appears to be the word “tha.” The only problem is that when you look away or close your eyes you distinctly hear that the word is actually “ba.” The woman has tricked us by moving her lips to the word “tha” while simultaneously playing a recording of her saying “ba.”
Take a friend and a voice recorder to a busy, noisy neighborhood bar. Set the voice recorder between the two of you and record your conversation. You can hear your friend speaking in the bar without too much difficulty, but when you play it back at home you will discover that it may be difficult to separate out your friend’s voice from all the other voices at the bar.
What do we learn from these two experiments? One thing we learn is that while our auditory cortex and visual cortex both provide information, our brain automatically gives priority to our visual cortex. Seeing the woman talk or seeing your friend speaking takes priority over the sounds you are hearing. Visual trumps auditory.
This all makes sense because elaborate speech is a relatively advanced development in primates so our ancient brains were developed with a greater emphasis on the visual. Seeing is believing.
This information is useful for child development. Your infant will take longer to learn to speak if you sit him or her on your lap holding the book out front and speaking to the child from behind. A better way is to sit the infant across from you so he or she can see you speaking each word as you point to it on the page. Of course you have to be able to read the words up-side-down so your child can see them right-side-up as you speak.
We used to think that the left hemisphere of our brain was logical, rational and analytical while the right brain was artistic and creative. It turns out that the pre-frontal cortex is logical and analytical while our subconscious mind is best at producing innovative artistic creations.
However, just as the visual dominates the auditory, the subconscious dominates the conscious mind. This is why willpower doesn’t work all that well in the long run. Your subconscious mind will put up with interference from your prefrontal cortex for only so long. Then it is back to basics such as sugar, salt and fat when you are trying to diet. Your subconscious mind has learned to associate the bad stuff with satisfaction.
Logic in Congress gets only so far before subconscious beliefs and ideology overwhelm logical debate and discussion. More often than not we use our prefrontal cortex just to rationalize what our subconscious mind has already decided. The problem in Congress is that each side is programming their minds with a fundamentally different ideology. They read a different collection of books and follow different radio and TV channels so each side hears only statements that confirm their own deep-seated, subconscious ideology.
The French Renaissance was based on the idea that we should all be more logical and rational. Human progress can only come about through the expansion of the role of our prefrontal cortex. This turns out to be naïve and counter-productive. The logical, linear analysis provided by our prefrontal cortex could not possibly process the huge amount of information that our brains take in.
A brilliant pianist does not read the notes or otherwise use his or her prefrontal cortex to direct every finger movement. By programming the subconscious mind the pianist just lets the music flow. As the old joke says, the way to Carnegie Hall is practice, practice, practice. Through practice we turn logic into instinct and conscious thoughts into subconscious feelings.
Although the conscious mind cannot change the subconscious mind immediately and directly, it can go through the back door and through persistence make fundamental changes in subconscious beliefs. It turns out that our subconscious is largely the accumulation of feelings, instincts and beliefs that have come from both external and internal sources.
Subconscious beliefs are gradually altered by external messages heard over and over again like “Ford tough,” “Tide clean” or “Death to America.” More important are the internal messages we tell ourselves over and over again. When I worked as a clerk at a battalion headquarters at Fort Knox, we had a second lieutenant join our office staff. He had just gotten married. Every day he had some complaint about his wife. She burned the toast, etc., etc. A year later he got divorced. No surprise. He programmed that divorce.
Often we have a narrative associated with doing or not doing something. For example, what do you tell yourself about showing up on time? Some people worry a lot about being late. They allow extra time in case of some unexpected difficulty in getting there. Their subconscious minds hold the belief that competent people arrive on time, or even a little early.
Alternatively, you may be playing a different narrative tape in your head. You may have noticed that the important, popular people seem to show up late. Surely, you are an important, popular person. It only makes sense that you would show up a bit late. Perhaps a lot late if you are especially important.
Brain research has discovered that people are “not of one mind.” That is to say, we are often conflicted in our minds by all our different objectives and alternative narratives. Sometimes we can use one objective to reinforce another. For example, you can’t seem to convince yourself to stop your weekly visit to that nice restaurant with the wonderful all-you-can-eat buffet. If your narrative about not overeating is not yet strong enough, refer yourself to your narrative about saving money or time.
Building complementary narratives to reinforce one another can often make the difference between long run success and failure. If you can’t convince yourself to rake up those leaves in your yard to please your neighbors or save your grass, perhaps you can bring up the narrative about getting more exercise.
Children should be empowered to begin programming their own subconscious minds as early as they can reasonably be expected to do so. Certainly by junior high school they should begin to figure out what strategies they can use to achieve their goals. Drug addiction, suicide and other bad outcomes can be avoided if children feel empowered to devise their own strategies for success. Just being told what to do without building internal narratives to reinforce beliefs may not be enough.
Sometimes it is even useful to believe things that are not necessarily true. For example, I know of some Nobel Prize winners who early in their careers had their papers rejected again and again by leading journals, but kept believing that with just a little more effort, their work would be accepted. They seemingly naively kept beating their heads against a wall until that wall eventually caved, and they got their articles published. Sometimes success is just a matter of being compulsive about the right things.
If you think that devising narratives to change your subconscious beliefs will never work, consider all those suicide bombers who blow themselves up based on crazy stories about the CIA being behind the 9/11 attacks or other such narratives. Surely you can come up with some narrative to convince yourself to turn off the TV and get out there and rake up those leaves.