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Going on Automatic

Going on Automatic

Do you remember the last time you went for a cup of coffee or tea at the office or at home? Ever have that experience without even being aware that you’re doing it? You could be halfway finished with the cup and have no recollection of even pouring it. This is what happens when our brain “goes on automatic”.

Think of the brain and mind as two different entities. When brain is left ungoverned by the mind, then you are in a state of autopilot. At such times, you are more likely to be rigid and to behave from old, familiar emotions and thoughts. You may ignore or be unaware of differences in the present that would warrant different responses. It is at this point you are most in danger of being controlled by “Brain Babble”.

What is “Brain Babble” you ask? Great question! How about a story to explain?

Earlier in the year, I had to go on a teaching trip to Texas. While there, I was driving into Lubbock. Along the way, there was a sudden thunder storm with rain the likes I had never seen. I could not see the end of the front of my car for the amount of water that was pouring out of the sky. It was very frightening. Thankfully, a huge truck drove by and I was able to follow it out safely. Once I actually arrived in Lubbock, all I wanted to do was find food and go to the hotel to rest. I must have driven around and around. As I was in a rather isolated area, I could not find any place to eat. Finally, after almost an hour, I found a little mom-and-pop shop that sold fried catfish. I bought some. It tasted like mud to me.

Flash forward several weeks. On another trip to Rochester, New York, on a blustery, gray and rainy day, as I walked down the street, I passed a restaurant that advertised catfish. In that moment, my brain said, “Eww. Catfish here? Rochester is a terrible place!”

Do you see the problem?

Is catfish bad? Is the whole of Lubbock completely devoid of places to eat? Did the sky nearly drown us in a storm because Texas is a lousy state? Think about it. The answer to all these questions is a resounding, “No!” The thought, “Rochester is a terrible place” is an example of “Brain Babble” – nonsense utterings of the brain when information that has been learned by association is triggered.

Association? What? Think about your brain. Within your brain are billions of neural pathways that connect bits of information. When something is rigidly circuited into the brain, it is accessed more efficiently. When this happens repeatedly, the wiring can become fixed, otherwise known as automatic or “hard-wired”. This makes sense because if we need to repeat a behavior or thought multiple times, it takes less energy to make it automatic.

 You want to see an example of this “hard-wiring”? Try this…say the first word that comes to mind as you read the following three words:

Cat                   Book                Walk

In such exercises, people often say “dog” when they hear the word cat. This is an example of when a word is associated in your brain with other words. This is the result of a particular neural network (or “circuit”) firing.  The fact it happens without any thought puts it in the category of hard-wired. Some people think this means that it cannot change, but that is not the case. It is also not necessarily present from birth.

The big problem is that when something is hard-wired, it can feel “true” or “right”.

My experience in Lubbock was unpleasant, even scary at points. Drowning and starving are scary to the brain. The fight-or-flight part of our brain tends to err on the side of caution and so as to avoid any further duals with thunderstorms or insults to my tongue, an association of “bad news” became correlated with both “catfish” and “Lubbock”. When I saw the same word in another town on a similarly unpleasant weather day, a warning message was given: “Rochester is a terrible place”.

Thankfully, I am aware of this brain issue and when my mind became aware of the nonsensical association, I was able to disregard it and not form any final opinion about Rochester – or Lubbock for that matter.

You see, not everything you think is accurate. That does not make you dumb – that makes you efficient. If you need to do the same action at work over and over again, auto-pilot comes in handy. However, when faced with new situations about which you need to formulate an opinion, you may want to slow down and check the facts. If you don’t, you may end up believing many things that are not entirely true. If you find yourself unsure of what to believe or fear that your life may be stuck on auto-pilot, contact The Center • A Place of Hope. The team there helped many people learn healthier ways to navigate life so that you can learn to control your brain rather than your brain controlling you!

Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Program Coordinator, she is a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist. Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center • A Place of Hope, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.

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