When was the last time you pulled out the owner’s manual for one of your more complicated gadgets? Assuming you gave it the once over before you tucked it away, it was probably seeing the light of day again because something wasn’t working quite the way you expected. What if we had an owner’s manual for our brain when weight loss doesn’t go as expected? Neuroscience suggests we do. This article is the first in a series that examines how brain function affects change.
The Conscious Mind and the Unconscious Brain
The human brain is exquisitely complex and powerful, so at the risk of oversimplifying, we’re going to consider it from two major perspectives: the conscious mind and the unconscious brain. Cognition is the process of thought. Through high-level brain functions such as perception, learning, memory and many others, it’s how you make sense of your world. You may be surprised just how little of this is handled by your conscious mind — about 3% actually gets processed within your awareness. That means the other 97% is being processed unconsciously and automatically, so if this part isn’t wired for weight loss you’re wasting your time. Fortunately, the 3% you do have to work with has a potent design function that can feed pivotal directives to the other 97% to execute… provided you’ve read your owner’s manual.
Your brain uses more than 20% of your body’s energy so it’s always seeking efficiencies. A habit is something repeated to the point where your brain turns it into an unconscious act. A pattern is the accumulation of related habits in your brain. Problem is, old patterns (e.g. eating treats after meals) don’t process new options (e.g. exercising after meals) very well. Thankfully, your brain has an impressive ability called neuroplasticity, which enables it to make new brain cells (neurons) and connections throughout life, when exposed to new information and stimulated by experience. Great! Let’s just flip the switch from the old to the new shall we?
Not so fast. Your cognitive filters were established in childhood based on what you were modelled and taught, and your early life experiences wired the rest of you. Together, these formed a belief system that’s remained largely unconscious and untouched. There’s a part of your brain, called the reticular activating system, which tirelessly sifts through all the sensory input of your life to find the evidence that matches your beliefs. It’s this tiny percentage of input that has made it into your awareness and has been reinforcing your beliefs and their corresponding behaviours to date.
But what if some of the beliefs you’re operating from are limiting or flawed? What if you’ve formed a belief that says “I don’t like exercise?” We’re all challenged by “paradigm blindness” in some areas of our lives, where we lack the context or language to even recognize alternatives. We need to rewire ourselves to be able toSEE new evidence. That’s what we can do with our 3% — bring our early beliefs into our conscious mind, question them, expand them, reword them, or replace them if need be. The beauty of this is, once your new belief is articulated in a way that resonates with you (“I like exercise when it involves rhythm”), the new evidence already exists so it’s simply filtered into your awareness and your behaviour naturally begins to reflect this.
So change gets underway, you lose a few pounds… but then quickly gain it back again. What gives? There’s another part of your brain called the psycho-cybernetic mechanism, which alerts your nervous system to change. At an unconscious level, this chemical is experienced as discomfort and often coupled with fear because it’s indicating you’re moving away from your nice, stable state of equilibrium. The issue here is not the alert itself but our unconscious interpretation of it as threatening that makes us revert. Remember, discomfort is one of the hallmarks of change. Also, we each have a concept that represents the opposite of fear for us (for me, it’s excitement).
With our 3%, we can consciously remind ourselves discomfort is bringing us a breakthrough and fear never shows up without its opposite — we always have the power to choose. With this, we’re rewiring ourselves to ACCEPT new evidence.
Here again though, “paradigm shock” can make it difficult to absorb anything that counters how you currently make sense of your world, even in the face of overwhelming proof. You may concede new evidence exists (“The scale shows I’ve lost weight”) but refuse to assimilate it (“This weight loss isn’t real”). The beauty of neuroplasticity is, with continued exposure and enough experience, your brain can reorganize its neural circuitry around new evidence. Learning literally creates functional changes in your brain, making it progressively easier to have the thoughts that used to trigger paradigm shock. And that’s when you know the other 97% is becoming wired for weight loss!