Reflections on Patient Care
The Brain as a Computational Device: You Are Not Your Automated Thoughts
by Olivia Arkell
Most of us are under the impression that we control our thoughts and actions. To some extent we do — however, it’s fairly minuscule. Contrary to popular belief, a majority of our conscious perceptions, actions, and thoughts are actually produced from unconscious mental processes. To further elaborate, the unconscious mind has the capacity to process 11 billion bits of data of information in a second, whereas the conscious mind can only process approximately 400 of those bits (ThinkbyNumbers.org, 2020).
The brain is an incredibly complex computational device. Our thoughts are carried out primarily through neural calculations and algorithms. Due to the complexity of our neuronal network (the information processing center), the brain uses shortcuts and default pathways in order to efficiently communicate information. We developed this automatic computational mechanism as we evolved into more complex beings placed in more complex environments. Without this computational apparatus, we simply wouldn’t be able to process all the information and stimuli presented to us on a daily basis.
Although this function is fundamental to our survival, it has a tendency to distort the way we perceive the world around us. This rapid process of calculation typically falls below our threshold of awareness, so we often fail to recognize how distorted our thought processes really are. More importantly, these distortions consequently lead us to believe things are much worse than they actually are.
After I learned this during my undergraduate years, I naturally started paying more attention to my automatic judgements, biases, and overall thoughts. As I became more aware of my thoughts, I realized some of my automatic thought processes were skewed. They did not align with how I wanted to think or react given a particular encounter. More notably, they did not minister to my ideal psychological state and overall well-being. They were toxic and irrational. This is when I discovered my subconscious mind was controlling me — I was not my automated thoughts.
It’s inevitable we’ll be faced with misalignments between the way we want to think or act and the way our brain wants to think or act. Our brains are hardwired for survival, not for producing the most ideal psychological and mental state.
Upon coming to the realization that my conscious reasoning was not aligned with my subconscious reasoning, I was able to pinpoint the overarching problem. My lack of awareness led to a lack of control. The solution? Become more aware.
Subsequently, I began reconstructing my problematic narratives instead of falling victim to the ones that have been computationally wired into my daily thought processes. Becoming more mindful of how my brain processed information led me down numerous transformative rabbit holes, ones of which significantly improved the quality of my life. In spite of sharing this experience, I wanted to introduce the basic neuroscience that allowed me to embark on this self-awareness journey.
So, down the rabbit hole we go.
In order to understand the nature of our mind, I like to think of the mind as a machine with two separate operators: the unconscious/automatic operator, and the conscious/deliberate operator. As I’ve mentioned, the unconscious mind is the chief operator who is responsible for processing the billions of bits of information presented to us on a daily basis. Processing all this information creates an internal dialogue. You know, that little voice inside your head that can’t seem to turn off? Yeah, that. That’s often who we identify ‘ourselves’ with.
The conscious mind is co-chief to our subconscious (I will use the terms ‘unconscious’ and ‘subconscious’ interchangeably). This is where deliberate, rational, and analytical thinking takes place. Using this system takes a greater amount of energy because it takes effort and awareness. For the sake of reserving our energy and making efficient judgements, we rarely exercise this system.
Now that we have a general understanding of the two systems, there are some caveats that need further exploration. It must be noted that although information may descend down default pathways for the sake of communicating efficiently, this does NOT imply the messages are being processed in the most advantageous manner.
The brain follows pre-existing connections and associations acquired through past experiences. New experiences that have associations to past events are going to be interpreted and processed in a way that is coherent with the existing information. Our brain uses this procedure for the sake of constructing quick and cohesive judgements of our current circumstances. Even when provided with an educational experience, our brains will naturally encode the information to fit into our personal framework or twist it to fit more coherently with the existing information stored. . . but that’s a discussion for another time.
Our brains have become so advanced and efficient that sometimes it results in cognitions, behaviors, or habits that create more disparities in our lives. Without deliberate intervention of the conscious mind, the brain will respond with whatever response is most habitual. These deeply-rooted thought patterns sometimes result in polarized thinking and cognitive distortions. The worst part? We unknowingly continue to reinforce these beliefs over time.
Yet, we remain auspicious because it’s not our brains main objective to deceive and limit us through utilizing its computational nature. Distortions appear merely as a byproduct of our brain’s attempt to keep up with the cognitive, social, environmental, and intellectual advancements we’ve made as a species.
In order to become more aware of these distortions, we must learn that unfavorable emotions or thoughts constantly returning to one’s mind should be a signal for reflection. I found that in such instances, analyzing these recurring thoughts using the conscious/analytical mind is far more advantageous than relying on the default responses the subconscious mind prefers to reply with. The first step is becoming aware of distorted thoughts. Then comes the hard part.
Reinterpretation of our distorted thought patterns requires us to revisit unfavorable past experiences and emotions. Our brains generally avoid doing this because it doesn’t stimulate our pleasure centers. It’s considered a threat (Remember… our brains are hardwired for survival). This is where our brains may be misleading us.
We often lose the opportunity to learn and grow amidst the unpleasantness of an adverse experience or emotion.
By falling victim to distorted thought processes because we fear reassessment of past traumas, we close ourselves off to expansion of our very own well-being. We become restricted to automatic computational mechanisms that make us liable to faulty perceptions of the world around us.
In conclusion, becoming aware of our thought patterns gives us a greater sense of control in our lives and the outcomes that come along with it. We are equipped with tools to dismantle unwanted self-limiting habits, beliefs, and perceptions and fully capable of replacing them with more productive ones. We’re typically just unaware of it.
Our current circumstances exist as they do because of the way we think of ourselves in our world. Our thoughts manifest into our beliefs, our beliefs transpire into our expectations, our expectations guide our attitudes, our attitudes control our behavior, and our behaviors determine our state of being.
The pursuit towards creating new constructive thought patterns is not an easy one. It takes will and diligence. With that being said, I am a firm believer the most difficult ventures in life are often the most rewarding.
For this reason, I find that working towards self-awareness and summoning up the courage to revisit past traumas may very well be a skill that can significantly improve our lives.
Olivia Arkell is a recent graduate from Hamline University who studied psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, and political science. She has a strong interest in biomedical ethics and the psychotherapeutic value of psychedelics. Olivia is always looking for ways she can expand her understanding on how we can transform the way we treat mental illness in the clinical setting. She demonstrates this passion through researching and interpreting literature then translating it into a short article/blog form that is easy, reliable, and comprehensible for the general public to read. Olivia joined the editorial team at Today’s Patient with the goal of initiating important conversations on topics related to wellness, mental health, neuroscience, and psychology and educating people on patient rights and advocacy.
June 2022 page 6