This is the first in a 3-part series about how our minds work. Click here for part two and click here for part three.
If you’re a type-A, action-oriented, busy businessperson (like myself), you’re probably used to being in control (and being right). I’m not sure if I’ve ever met a successful business owner who does not have an innate drive (if not an outright need) for control. It helps keep quality high, move your business in the direction you’ve envisioned, and become or remain profitable. Let’s face it; being a control freak gets results.
Sometimes though, our need for control can be detrimental. It causes problems in relationships, makes others feel we are argumentative or intractable, and too often leads to everyone’s favorite management technique: micromanaging. (Just kidding–I know micromanaging is horrible.)
One of the hardest things about leadership is that it’s often the things we’re not aware of that have the biggest impact on those around us. The brain is very much like a computer functioning on if/then commands. Unfortunately, those if/then commands (mental programs) are often way out-of-date. A destructive desire for control is a great example of useful programming gone bad.
So how do we reprogram our brains to produce better results?
First, it’s important to differentiate between the brain and the mind. Your brain is a physical organ that stays in a fixed place in your body (unless maybe, you get a lobotomy). Your mind, however is a less tangible thing than the brain. It is the part of you that is aware, also referred to as your consciousness. Whether it’s spiritual (as some people believe) or a result of the firing of neurons in the brain (as other people believe) is immaterial to this discussion. What’s important for this conversation is that when we’re talking about the mind, we’re not talking about lobes of the brain or anything that is lodged in a specific physical area.
When discussing the mind, there are three basic areas to consider: the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, and the unconscious mind.
The conscious mind is the part we’re aware of and think with. It is easily manipulated (i.e. you can change your mind when presented with a compelling argument), and it’s the part of our mind we are most familiar with. When someone refers to “my mind” in a conversation, this is usually the part they’re speaking about.
The unconscious mind is the creator of dreams. Its job is to sort and organize the millions of pieces of data you’ve been exposed to. I always think of the unconscious mind as a file clerk in a gigantic room full of file cabinets. Some rare bits of information get dismissed as trash, but most of it gets filed away in case it’s useful later. This is a huge job.
Consider everything you’re being exposed to in this moment alone through your five senses. Right now, I hear the birds singing outside, a neighbor’s dog barking, the wind blowing softly, the hum of the overhead fan, cars going by down the mountain below me, a clock ticking somewhere in the other rom, and my dog whimpering. Most of those things my conscious mind knows to disregard because they’re no threat to my safety and require no action from me to proceed. I imagine all of those as filed in my unconscious mind in some sort of reference file, but my dog whimpering is filed elsewhere, and tagged as important. Because of previous experience with her, I know that she’s thirsty and since she has trouble getting up these days, there is an action required on my part to alleviate her discomfort: bringing her the water bowl (and some treats, just because).
That example is what only 1 of my 5 senses was picking up over the course of 3-5 seconds. I just identified 7 things, so if you extrapolate that VERY conservatively to 10 different stimuli over the course of a minute, that is 14,400 auditory stimuli my brain is processing in a day (1,440 minutes in a day times 10 auditory stimuli per minute). Multiplied by your five senses, that’s 72,000 bits of data to sort. And before you think to subtract sleeping hours, your senses do still register things while you’re sleeping, even if you’re not consciously aware of them. Having a four-month-old baby in the house, I understand why babies sleep so much–everything is new to them! Sleep is when our unconscious mind is in charge; if babies didn’t sleep most of the day, how could their new brains possibly organize all that data?
And think about what happens if you’re sleep-deprived. When your unconscious mind doesn’t have dedicated time to sort through the day’s information, your memory and other cognitive skills suffer (as I discussed in this previous article). Why? Maybe because you’re unconscious and conscious mind are warring over who gets to use the brainpower….
I saved the subconscious mind for last because it is the most complicated, and for our purposes, the most important. The subconscious mind is where mental programs are created and carried out. If you want to change the mental programs you’re running, the subconscious mind is where you’ll need to focus.
The next article in this series (“Think You’re in Control? You’re Not. How Mental Programs are Running Your Life“) delves deeply into the subconscious mind, explaining how mental patterns are created and why childhood experiences may be influencing your adult decisions.