A Simple & Powerful Brainhack Puts You In The Driver's Seat

Getting control of your mind gives you better choices when you most need them.

Posted Feb 17, 2020

When you feel upset to the point you are having trouble, stop and get curious. Practice this until it becomes a knee-jerk reaction, wired into your control networks. This is what is happening now.

When the anxiety hits that point, feel the uncanniness of it, noticing on a deep, intuitive level that something ill-suited and undesired is happening.

Radical Curiosity

What does curiosity do? It allows us to, first of all, slow down and shift our perspective — and brain activity — completely. It interrupts the preset dynamics of fight-flight, allowing us to wake up from a self-induced trance of emotional dysregulation.

Curiosity has been shown to be correlated with higher connectivity among the brain’s key “big three” networks, the executive control network, the salience network, and the default mode network, in a 2019 study. Research shows that curiosity ties different parts of the brain together into a more coherent whole, while also increasing one's sense of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy correlates with better performance.

When we engage curiosity fully, we take control of our own salience network. We get to say what we pay attention to, and how we pay attention… rather than leaving it to merely automatic processes. Curiosity is the leading edge of will, and of agency.

Curiosity sets the stage for compassionate empathy toward oneself. Like empathy, compassion can be more emotional or more intellectual. Curiosity is the opposite of addiction and compulsion.

Compassionate curiosity combines warmth and gratitude toward oneself for recognizing greater choices in a difficult situation with sufficient mental detachment to think through various options, stepping outside of usual cognitively inflexible ways of thinking.

The Difference Between Empathy and Compassion

A 2013 study looking at the effects of empathy training, followed by compassion-based training, researchers found that empathy training alone could ramp up negative feelings in response to exposure to others’ suffering, activating centers for pain and unpleasant experience, including the anterior insula and anterior midcingulate cortex. Others’ suffering was harder to handle after empathy training alone, opening them up to challenging emotions without adequate coping.

After compassion training, the negative emotion effect not only reversed but was replaced by positive, adaptive emotional reactions, including warmth and concern. A totally different brain network activated — including the medial orbitofrontal cortex, pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, and striatum.

This makes sense, as compassion — acting to reduce others’ suffering — needs empathy as its eyes and ears to perceive suffering, going beyond to engage a broader range of motivational systems for planning and decision-making.

When to Get Curious

This is for times when the emotions are either way off, upon reflection… and it’s happened enough that you are starting to recognize there’s an issue — or for times when the emotion fits the situation, as far as you have been able to tell, but is either way too powerful… or too weak to get you to do what you need to do for yourself and others you care about. All of these factors enhance group function as well, so engage others.

Don’t blame. Don’t self-criticize, but have the attitude that feeling this way is definitely off, unhelpful, and pointing you in the wrong direction. The feeling is not panicked alarm, but something softer — a gentle sense of wariness, an intuitive conviction that what is happening isn’t right. Examples may include:

  • “I’m not meant to be going into this angry state. Why on earth would I be feeling rage over this?”
  • “I’m really scared. That’s strange. I’m totally cool with this. Done it a thousand times.”
  • “Who am I, at this moment? Is this who I want to be?”
  • “This isn’t who I want to be. Why am I still doing this? This is who I want to be, aligned with values, purposes, and passions.”

'Das Unbehagen'

Like suddenly waking up from a profoundly unsettling dream, or breaking out of a self-hypnotic trance, curiosity can return us to safety by engaging higher levels of the brain and taking deeper fear centers off the mainline, while engaging them strategically to break the spell with a dose of the uncanny, a sense of uneasiness (unbehagen in German).

“Unbehagen” was used by Freud in the original title of the book Civilization and Its Discontents, which more accurately translated could be The Uneasiness in Civilization, in German, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur.

In it, Freud highlights the clash between instinctive desires for freedom and the constraints under which society places us to conform and repress wishes. This serves a purpose to keep people from all kinds of mayhem but also can lead to terrible losses, isolation from people, and being cut off from our creative juices.

Internally, this dynamic plays out in blame and self-criticism, aimed at repressing desires experienced to be unacceptable. Curiosity, invited by a powerful sense of unease and quintessential accepting without impulsivity, opens a door we might never have noticed.

Healthy Complexity

Cultivating curiosity, from the colder more intellectualized incarnations to warmer, more self-compassionate varieties induces changes in brain activity, transforming one experience into another, transforming the outer world just as much as the inner. Curiosity opens us up to “integrative complexity”, which includes two components:

  1. The capacity and willingness to accept that there is more than one way to look at an issue and to acknowledge that these differing perspectives are all legitimate (differentiation), and
  2. The ability to form conceptual links among these perspectives and to integrate them into a coherent overall judgment (integration).

Curiosity does this by increasing the number of different states the mind can be in at that moment. Rather than being brain-locked into one over-simplified view and way of experiencing, curiosity asks always, “What else could there be?” What else could I say? What else could I think? What else could this mean? What else am I feeling? Why is this happening, and not this? How else can I respond? What else could they be up to? And so on.

By doing so, successful curiosity increases the entropy of the brain, a phenomenon seen with meditation, psychedelics, and even caffeine. And entropy — within reason — is associated with constructive creativity and greater open-mindedness.

Radical curiosity, compassionate curiosity, is also essential when dealing with difficult people, and for solving challenging problems in work and personal settings. Once that reflex is in place, it is much harder to get stuck in brain-lock or caught in groupthink.

Remember, the next time you start to speak that you could say literally anything. Sure, there’d be an infinite amount of gibberish, and a vast amount of un-useful or problematic things to say — and there’d also be a huge array of things you could utter which would be better than the usual. And thinking is a bit like speaking.

Try this, if you want. Pick a trigger word — when you feel something is going sideways, and want to remind yourself to flip the switch and engage curiosity circuits, say that word (silently or aloud).


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