Who's in Charge - Your Brain or Your Mind?

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What is the difference between your brain and your mind? Dr. Dan Siegel has been very helpful by distinguishing the difference in his many books. Here’s how I think about the difference: the brain is the hardware that keeps track of information, repeating behaviors and keeps us alive; the mind is software that can manipulate the information in response to the present moment. The brain is powered by the body and by the input and output about our environment and relationships from our senses. The mind arises from our brain, body, and relationships, and provides the observational self.

I am grateful for everything that my brain automatically takes care of... breathing, brushing my teeth, driving my car home when I am tired, putting clothes on in the mornings. These are habits that support the functioning of my life. Of course, we can have good habits and bad habits. Another way of thinking about behaviors is who is choosing the behavior and for what reason? Is it our brain or is it our mind?

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Let's do an exercise to demonstrate changing a habit that the brain is in charge of: brushing your teeth. Let's imagine that you are going to do whatever it takes to not brush your teeth for three days. You can use breath mints or chew gum, and we can acknowledge that your teeth will not rot in the three days.  Ok, don't stop reading, I know that you are not going to do this exercise. The point is that when the brain is in charge of this behavior, it takes a lot of energy to change that wiring and we will feel uncomfortable in the process.

Many things can get wired in as a brain-habit that we may want our minds to stay in charge of. Food is an example. One day I had a handful of chocolate chips after lunch. Then, it happened another day and another day. Eventually, my brain decided that the rule was handful of chocolate after a meal. Ok, lunch and dinner... sometimes breakfast. I often eat and then leave the house and because what happens together wires together, my brain rule began to ask me if I needed a handful of chocolate chips to leave the house. Sure why not? Ok now my brain is asking for chocolate after every meal and as I prepare to leave the house. At some point, my mind said "Hey, have you noticed that I’m eating chocolate chips 3 to 6 times a day? My brain said " I just need them."

Having a habit hard-wired into your brain means that those wired circuits need to be used and if you stop the behavior your brain make you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or agitated just like you would if you tried to stop brushing your teeth.

Now there is a tug-of-war between my brain and body and my mind. Sometimes my mind says "no chocolate chips," but if I am not paying attention they just get grabbed before I have a chance to decide. I could just decide to not buy chocolate chips but I’ve tried that in the past and I just replace the habit/addiction with something else that’s in the house. 

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When I want to make sure I’m not in a brain rut, I apply the choice of three: when we have three choices, we make better choices (check out the book Brain Rules by John Medina). So, if I need a signal that a meal is done, here are my three choices:

  1. chocolate (but not everyday),
  2. a piece of fruit, or
  3. a moment of silence about the meal, where I relive the meal - particularly if it was a meal that I would like to make more of. By reviewing the meal, I am signaling that is should be remembered and I am increasing gratitude.

When I am leaving the house, I try not be on the phone, and to stop to see if I have everything. I found that the chocolate grab also helped slow me down so that my brain had time to remind me that I forgot to something. So stopping to review and breathe is also helpful and it gives me time to ask myself "do I have everything?"  I have not created three options here because the brain has about 7 slots to juggle everything making one of three choices when I know I am in a rush will just assure that I leave more thing I need at home, so I just try to be mindful about leaving.

Meals and exercise are good opportunities to slow down, where we can practice being mindful of our choices rather than run by brain-driven rituals. Having 3 options that we try and cover each week will also increase the variety of nutrients that we eat or the ways we move our bodies; making sure we don’t get bored has the added benefit of preventing burnout on any particular food or exercise.

One of the things you’ll notice is that I treat my brain and my body as if they are good friends who are always traveling with me. They each have their individual jobs but none of us get to dominate the discussion.

I wonder if anyone else has a committee? How do you experience your brain and mind?  Feedback on this article is welcome