Unhacking Your Brain

Guest post by Angie Hardage

While we cannot sustainably avoid difficult feelings, we can deliberately focus on positive and peaceful feelings. Just knowing this, and putting it into practice can be a complete game changer. – Dennis Tirch


Photo by Park Troopers

Our contemporary cultural climate is filled with chronic stimulation and an onslaught of distractions. Throughout the day, we encounter a multitude of external and internal stimuli that compete for our attention. Conversations, music, interruptions, and constant alerts from our smartphones are just a few of the external distractions that compete for our attentional resources. Add to that our internal, private experiences including thoughts, feelings, urges, internal chatter and self talk, memories, and physical sensations. Research from Killingsworth & Gilbert (2010) found that on average 50% of our waking time is characterized by thoughts associated with the future or the past (there and then) rather than the present (here and now). For folks who struggle with depression and/or anxiety, the percentage is even higher. In short, we are bombarded by an onslaught of stimuli that can leave us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, out of control, functioning on auto-pilot, and disconnected from the things in life that feel truly meaningful to us.

The average adult checks their mobile smartphone more than 200 times a day (Aiken, 2016). The CBS news show 60 Minutes recently featured a story titled “Brain Hacking” exposing the fact that programmers engineer the software and apps used in our phones to intentionally produce addictive, compulsive behaviors. These apps are being intentionally engineered to increase chronic anxiety resulting from bursts of the stress hormone cortisol when we are away from our phones. When the chronic bursts of cortisol are paired with the intermittent rewards of dopamine that are associated with receiving a text, email, or “like” on social media, the result is increasingly addictive, compulsive attachment to our devices. To be clear – I am not arguing for or against technology, distractions, or stimulation. I’m not trying to characterize any behavior as “good” or “bad.” Rather, I’m suggesting we reflect on the questions “At what cost?” and “Is there an alternative?”

At what cost?
One potential result of the constant pairing of cortisol bursts and dopamine hits is a brain that is frequently hijacked by random stimuli and increasingly wired for impulsivity, reactivity, and distractibility. New data featured in a recent article in The New York Times reported that increasing rates of anxiety, depression, and perfectionism are being observed in millennials (Adams, Jan. 18, 2018). As a result, the appeal of avoidant behaviors such as self-medicating using substances and/or over-reliance on mindless distractions (Netflix, shopping, relationships, etc.) increases as a an effort to manage our distress. In a culture characterized by hyperconsumerism, using products to fill a void in our emotional lives is an option that is available 24/7 with online shopping. And much of the impact of the increasing prevalence of technology in our daily lives is still unknown. According to psychologist Dr. Michael Seto, “We are living through the largest unregulated social experiment of all time” (Radesky, Schumacher, & Zuckerman, 2014).

Is there an alternative?
In a culture that encourages distraction and disconnection, I propose a counter-culture alternative that fosters equanimity, clarity, and intentionality. Mindfulness is described by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2013) as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Mindfulness can also be operationalized as a simple (but not easy!) process consisting of three steps: 1) Be Present (engaging your senses as a means of “dropping anchor” and purposefully bringing attention to the here and now experience with a dual quality of focus and flexibility); 2) Open Up (cultivating an attitude of dispassionate curiosity or receptivity, allowing and making room for whatever arises in your experience without attachment or avoidance); and 3) Coming Back (gently and repeatedly returning your attention to the “here and now” whenever it wanders, by non-judgmentally noticing and naming whatever “hooks” you) (Lasprugato, 2015). Harnessing the power of mindfulness to bring ourselves into contact with the present moment is, in fact, the ONLY opportunity to CHOOSE behavior rather than allowing thoughts, feelings, and urges to control behavior. When feeling frazzled, overwhelmed or over stimulated, practicing mindfulness is a way to apply the brakes and decelerate, allowing you to shift gears into moment by moment processing.

Mindfulness is a skill and can be learned as a way to reclaim your power and rewire your brain for improved focus, equanimity, and emotion regulation. In the face of a culture that encourages mindlessness and reactivity, practicing mindfulness is an empowering means of asserting authorship of your psychological and emotional well-being. Dr. Dan Siegel (2017) says, “Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connections grow.” In other words, with regular and repeated practice, cultivating the state of mindfulness results in developing the trait of mindfulness. Practicing the nine attitudes of mindfulness (acceptance, beginner’s mind, generosity, gratitude, letting go, non-judging, non-striving, patience, and trust) allows you to author a life of vitality with meaning and intention. It’s an act of radical resistance to the path of accepting cultural expectations and mindless conformity and capitulation. Below are eight specific examples of how integrating a mindfulness practice into your daily life can be an act of conscientious rabble rousing:

  • Authoring your intrinsic values and organizing your life activities around them, rather than internalizing the “values” of the dominant culture or your family of origin can be powerful and liberating
  • Choosing an attitude of non-striving is a revolutionary stance in a culture that encourages us to “hustle for our worthiness”
  • In a situation that you feel is unjust or unfair, but you feel relatively powerless to change the circumstances, asking yourself two questions can help you effectively reconnect to the present moment and stand in your values: 1) “What do I want to stand for in the face of this situation?” 2) Is it in my power to do that right now? (Sigh, yes, it’s always possible to “Be the change,” even when we are powerless to change certain circumstances!!)
  • Practicing the attitude of beginner’s mind allows you to reclaim the power of your mind in order to reduce the influence of your learning history, expectations, biases, and assumptions. Practicing beginner’s mind also reduces fear-based, “different is deficient” thinking and promotes curiosity and a growth mindset
  • If you have experienced trauma, practicing mindfulness and the associated attitudes can be empowering as an antidote to learned helplessness
  • Stop “shoulding” on yourself. Practicing self-compassion can be a radical act of rebellion against the mainstream idea of self-criticism as motivating. There is plenty of research to support that practicing self-compassion is MORE effective in promoting resilience and motivation (Germer, 2009; Neff, 2011)
  • Challenge gender stereotypes! Practicing mindfulness helps us to recognize when we may be limiting ourselves and functioning from the “gender box” rather than allowing ourselves to experience and express the full spectrum of human possibility
  • Generate more positive energy in your life and in the lives of others through instigating loving conspiracies, practicing random acts of kindness, and ferocious self care!

If you’re curious and wish to learn more about how mindfulness can help you “take your power back,” come join us for our weekly community mindfulness practice meetings, enroll in one of our courses, take a retreat with us, or participate in our annual meditation challenge!


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