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8 Things You Didn't Know About Your Mind

And eight ways to harness its unique powers for your benefit.

Source: eukukulka/Shutterstock

The mind is a mysterious and elusive thing. This list reveals some of the weirdest things about your mind—and mine—and what, if anything, can be done about them.

1. No one knows exactly what the mind is or how the brain creates it.

It's weird that the mind even exists. How does “something as sublime and insubstantial as thought or consciousness … emerge from three pounds of gelatinous pudding inside the skull?” No one knows. Moreover, even though the mind is created by the brain, the mind can operate with some independence from the brain. In fact, the mind can actually change the brain.

What you can do about it: Nothing. Just be amazed.

2. “Thinking” is the way you talk to yourself.

A useful way to think about thinking is to describe it as the way or ways you talk to yourself. For practical purposes, “thinking” and “self-talk” are the same thing.

What you can do: To find out what is on your mind, figure out what you are saying to yourself.

3. You can watch your mind at work.

Without tampering with your skull in any way, you can become skilled at mind-watching. Using mindful awareness, "you can stand outside your own mind as if you are watching what is happening to another rather than experiencing it yourself." The “watching part,” sometimes called “the Observing Self” (or “Observing Ego”), is somewhat detached from emotions and can view your thoughts and actions with some impartial objectivity. By contrast, the “experiencing” part of your mind notices sense impressions and has emotional reactions to them.

Why it’s important: Noticing your mental habits and activities (fantasies, stories, ideas) is the first step toward calming or changing your mind. Developing an Observing Self is also critical to monitoring your actions.

What you can do: To cultivate your Observing Self, notice your self-talk without judgment. Do you worry about the same things again and again? Do you talk to yourself in an encouraging way or a hurtful way? Listen to your self-talk and you will see your mind at work. At some point, you might decide to change any thinking habits that are holding you back.

4. The mind is a wild thing and will run where it will.

Have you ever noticed that your mind can be a three-ring circus? This quote by a Buddhist writer describes the strange things we might see when we look into our minds:

"(Sometime) you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you never noticed."

It is reassuring to realize that everyone has a “monkey mind” filled with fantasies, stories, wild imaginings, and thoughts both useful and ridiculous. In other words, the mind has a mind of its own. It can’t be controlled, but—no problem—you can learn to manage it.

What you can do: When you notice your mind spinning stories, thoughts, and fantasies, say to yourself, “Just thoughts,” or “Thinking.” This labeling will help you view your mental chatter more objectively, take it less seriously, and calm yourself. This technique is from Zen meditation practice, but you don’t need to be a meditator to use it. I use it all day long.

5. Your mind can change your brain.

Yes, your mind—that is, your thoughts— can change your brain. Odd as it may sound, as you create new thought patterns, you actually rewire your brain. The more you practice a new thinking habit, the more the same neurons will learn to work together and wire together. As neuroscientists say, neurons that fire together, wire together. In other words, “…directed, willed mental activity can clearly and systematically alter brain function.”

What you can do: Deliberately change your self-talk. For example, if you tend to wallow in frustration and anger when you make mistakes, practice telling yourself, “Mistakes are just part of life. I will make a conscious effort to learn from my mistakes.” Or write down the self-talk you’d like to adopt in a given situation, then recite it to yourself when needed.

6. Simple feeling words can calm your mind and change your brain.

Sad. Anxious. Angry. Whatever emotion is causing you distress, recent research shows that labeling it can ease your upset feelings and help you feel more in control. Attaching a label to an emotion moves your brain activity from the fight-or-flight area (the amygdala) to the thinking area (the prefrontal cortex). It’s astounding what even one word can do.

What you can do: Notice when an emotion is overwhelming you. Search for a word that describes that emotion and then feel your emotions subside. (Learn more here.)

7. Your brain has a negativity bias, but your mind can teach it to be happier.

The term “negativity bias” refers to the brain’s tendency to react more strongly to bad things—dangers, threats, mistakes, or problems—than to good things, such as pleasure, opportunity, and joy. Although the negativity bias has helped humans survive by alerting us to possible threats, it makes it harder for us to relax, enjoy life, and be happy.

Luckily, your mind can train your brain to be happier. Focusing on and experiencing the positive aspects of life actually builds new neural structures in the brain. This is another incredible way that your mind can change your brain for the better.

What you can do: Become aware of pleasant or happy experiences. Bring them to the foreground of your mind. Linger on these experiences for 5 seconds or more. By doing so, you will rewire your brain, making it more likely that you will notice other positive things around you in the future. (More details here.)

8. Learning new things changes your brain—even if you're older.

Enriching your mind by learning new things rewires your brain. Specifically, learning causes changes in your “memory campus," the hippocampus, according to research. The effect applies to both young and old. As neurologist Oliver Sacks said:

"Every time we practice an old skill or learn a new one, existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated."

Moral: You can teach an old dog new tricks.

What you can do: Learn new things, practice old and new skills, and know that your work will pay off.

Of course, everything has two sides. You could choose to use your mind to make yourself miserable, but I hope you won't. If you find it hard to think in constructive ways, please see a therapist.

(c) Meg Selig, 2016.

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“...gelatinous pudding.” Schwartz, J.M. and Begley, S. (2002). The Mind and the Brain. NY: HarperCollins, p. 21

“…you can stand outside your own mind.” Schwartz and Begley, p. 11

“…madhouse on wheels.” Henepola Gunaratana. Quoted in Chodron, P. (2013) How to Meditate. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, p. 68

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