Do You Know What Your Brain Is Doing?

Have you tried to meditate, been frustrated by the constant dialogue in your mind and labelled yourself a failure (or perhaps un-enlightened)?  Have you tried to develop a new skill only to be inundated with the negative assessments of your Inner Critic?   What do you tell yourself when you are operating with the incompetence of a beginner?

I’ve gotten very familiar with the constant criticism of my Inner Critic(s) over the years, to the point that I finally gave them names, personalities, and modes of dress.  (Humor seems to work for me.)

And I have compared my struggles with a restless mind to my friends who can meditate for hours.  (I’ve avoided meditation retreats because I’ve assumed a neon sign would appear above my head flashing “monkey mind” and I would be asked to leave in shame.)

I’ve labelled myself for years as someone who is “wound too tight.”  My self-critical, comparison-prone, always busy with irrelevant thoughts mind has been something I tried to hide.   However, I’ve discovered I’m not alone in these struggles.  In fact, my brain is wired to be very active when I assume it is resting.

Neuroscience research confirms that when our brain is not focused on a specific task (balancing your checking account, reading a compelling article or book, etc.) it is not at rest.  In reality, our brains are very active, engaging in assessments, problem-solving, wandering through memories and/or replaying negative experiences.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. describes this as the “default mode” of our brain.  The areas of your brain that are responsible for thinking about yourself and the future, processing memory and emotion, and imagery and imagination are all active when you aren’t focused on a specific task, when the brain is free-wheeling.

McGonigal describes this default mode as the time when parts of your brain begin “talking with each other.”*    Your brain flips into default mode within approximately 10 seconds of completing a task in which you were focused.   Any time we aren’t paying attention/concentrating our brains start talking to themselves.

Why is our brain so busy?  Why does it look for problems?  Why do we dredge up memories of our failures, embarrassments, faux pas’?  Why do we spend so much time in critical self-assessment and comparisons to others in which we ultimately view ourselves as less-than?  Why do we create worst-case scenarios?   Because that’s how we are wired!

I used to think my insecurities and struggle with self-esteem were directly related to my constant thoughts of rumination and self-recrimination.  Now I know those type of thoughts are part of the default mode of the brain.   Why does our brain conduct these conversations with itself?

It is a result of evolution.  Our ancestors needed to constantly be alert to ensure their survival.  However, it takes a lot of energy to concentrate for long periods of time.  So, our brain evolved to search for problems (what’s wrong?), and to replay memories of negative experiences (don’t go down that path with the trees, it leads to quicksand, and you almost didn’t make it out last time.)

The more I learn about how the brain works, the more I can lighten up on myself.  I’m not a hopelessly negative person who can’t control her monkey brain.

However, I do need to continue to practice being present rather than falling unconsciously into default mode.  When I realize I’m not paying attention, I bring my focus back to the task.   During meditation, I practice observing my thoughts without judgment rather than getting frustrated.
Each time I discover my brain has gone on walk-about again, I give myself grace and bring my attention back to my breath.

I now recognize that the brain chatter I’ve labelled negative and an example of my undisciplined mind, is just an evolutionary after-affect.  Isn’t it wonderful to know how your brain works?

*The frontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, medial temporal lobe, parietal cortex, and posterior cingulate cortex are the parts of your brain responsible for these functions.