||How Come My Brain Never Shuts Off?
If you pay attention to what is going on in your mind, you will find that there is a near-constant stream of chatter. Our brains seem to be talking, and engaging in commentary, all the time: sometimes about the past (“I really wish I had not done that!”), sometimes about the present (“this is really nice!” or “I hate this!”) and sometimes about the future (“I hope I get the job!” and “I am so scared that I will fail.”).
This “chatter” represents normal brain function; it is simply something that the brain does, when it is not occupied in deliberate problem solving. The brain generates thoughts, emotions, impulses, and physical sensations. However, most of us are unaware of most of what the brain is “saying,” nearly all the time! Instead, we let it go on, chattering outside of our awareness, while we go off into autopilot. If we are not actively making an effort to pay attention, many of our complex behaviors (driving to work; walking down the hall to the mailbox; eating meals) occur while we are in a sort of autopilot state. This does not necessarily mean that we are functioning poorly (any outside observer would say that we are doing just fine); but if we are in that autopilot state, we clearly are not living fully. And we may also be putting ourselves at risk for various problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, and impulsive and compulsive behaviors (including addictions). We may find, upon reflection, that our lives simply are not what we would like them to be.
There is any number of patterns into which internal chatter might fall. For some people, brooding about the past is prominent. I might endlessly and repetitively recall and re-hash episodes from my past, critically judging my decisions and my behavior, maybe even wallowing in regret and self-hatred.
Another pattern involves the future: I might be a chronic worrier, constantly bringing into mind scenarios in which disasters and catastrophes will likely take place. This can be accompanied by a constant effort to problem-solve or problem-prevent: “What will I do if this happens? What if that happens? How can I keep either of those things from happening?”
One very important pattern that appears in all of our mental landscape falls under the heading of “habit.” We all are aware that we have behavioral habits; we also have mental habits. Our capacity to develop habits is, overall, a very positive thing; we could not function efficiently if we had to think through every step we take in life, constantly “reinventing the wheel.” However, the negative side of habit-formation is clearly evident, as well. Many of our habits would be readily identified as “bad habits.” Our brains are structured in such a way that anything that is repeated often enough becomes a sort of a preferred, or even “default” option. If I am accustomed to taking a certain route when I drive home from work every day, then it takes a certain amount of effort to change my route. That driving route has become a (benign) habit. By the same token, if I have begun a pattern of eating a bowl of ice cream after dinner in the evenings, then it will take some effort to refrain from eating it on any given evening, and I will feel a strong urge to buy more of it when I go to the grocery store.
These patterns, mental and behavioral, can lead to serious problems:
• Brooding contributes to depression
• Worrying contributes to anxiety disorders
• Habit makes unhealthy behaviors more difficult to avoid
The tricky thing about these patterns is that they tend to go on outside of our awareness. We can see the outcomes that naturally arise out of the patterns (in unhappiness and in behaviors we don’t like, but can’t seem to control); but we fail to see the mind-states that contribute to these outcomes. We tend to be mystified by our own behaviors and emotional states. We feel as if they are outside of our control.
But, what if we shift our focus away from the outcome to the cause? What if we begin to develop the habit of awareness of our own mental functioning (especially our thoughts, emotions, impulses, and physical sensations), and develop our capacity to detach from counterproductive patterns, before they have a chance to manifest themselves as significant problems?
As it turns out, we can exercise our human capacity for freedom by deciding to develop our ability to direct and re-direct our attention. Since we know that our mental habits are contributing to unhappiness in our lives, the arena for choice becomes situated within our minds. We can let these patterns continue to go on chattering, outside of awareness (in which case we have no control over them); or we can pay attention, so that when they are operative, we can gently detach from them, and redirect attention to something more worthwhile.