The brain on autopilot


Image courtesy of OPERATIONB

image courtesy of OPERATIONB

Take 1

There she sat, a little nervous, chewing apprehensively at her bottom lip. Her hands twisted revealingly in her lap before she thought that activity would be a good distraction and she fussed over smoothing down her skirt. She didn’t know quite what to expect.

Across from her, the man reached into his folder and took a piece of card, laying it face down on the table. “I want you to tell me what you see…” he intoned, no doubt imparting some self-perceived gravity into the moment. Maybe he should have said “I vant you to tell me vaat you seeee…”

With a flourish he whipped the card off the table, turned it in mid-air and slid it across to her.

It was an inkblot.

“A leaf!” she called. “Or a squashed bug! Oooh oooh it’s some of that slimy goo that my best friend Holly had before her brother put it into his transformer and it went all hard!” she squealed. Secretly she knew that she was good at games like this. “Maybe it’s a fairy casting a spell on the ugly troll who stole her crown” she said breathlessly, as the inkblot danced before her, forming and reforming.

Pause. Zoom forward twenty five years. Replay the moment.

Take 2

There she sat, a little nervous, chewing apprehensively at her bottom lip. Her hands twisted revealingly in her lap before she thought that activity would be a good distraction and she fussed over smoothing down her skirt. She didn’t know quite what to expect.

Across from her, the man reached into his folder and took a piece of card, laying it face down on the table. “I want you to tell me what you see…” he intoned, no doubt imparting some self-perceived gravity into the moment. Maybe he should have said “I vant you to tell me vaat you seeee…”

With a flourish he whipped the card off the table, turned it in mid-air and slid it across to her.

It was an inkblot.

“It’s an inkblot” she said.

Somewhere in the distance a dog barked…

Before they get used to the way that their family, friends, school and society view things, children have the best ways of looking at things. After a bit, they get schooled up into how to perceive and make sense of what they see (or hear etc).

Before that, though, they have a natural ability to perform in a way that many adults envy. It goes something like this.

Inkblots and goo

The test outlined above is a real test. In fact it’s a famous psychological test called the Rorschach, or the inkblot test. Basically, this consists of an inkblot placed on a page which is then folded. The result is a sometimes roughly symmetrical inkblot. It’s a personality test in which the subject, that would be you, projects his or her personality onto what they see.

But why does a child see a leaf, squashed bug, goo, and fairy, while the adult sees, astonishingly, an inkblot?

In the previous post we talked about efficiency, and how the brain likes subroutines because they leave the brain free to allocate the limited resources of energy and attention to other tasks.

Well, turns out the brain is really good at building subroutines, and applies it also to how we see, perceive and make sense of things. Along with repetition, your brain creates the reality you “see”. See it enough, and the brain runs the subroutine from last time. It’s as if the brain tells itself “Ha, seen this before, I know what this means”. With energy being a limited resource, it’s a good mechanism for efficiency.

Now the downside. Seeing things in a new way takes an effort. Learning to do things in a new way also takes an effort. When the brain builds a subroutine, it physically strengthens the neural pathways it needs to perform that routine. The more practiced it is, the stronger it is. The stronger it is, the easier it is for the brain to run it, as the fewer resources it needs.

So here’s the take home bit

Change is hard. Biologically speaking.

We’ll come to this in future posts too, but the upshot for now is this –  moving the brain from a well established subroutine to a new one requires persistence and effort.

Unsurprisingly, habits are hard to break, including habits of thought and perception. Next time you want to see something in a different light, remember that you’re asking your brain NOT to do what it does well. You’re asking it to do something differently from what it would normally do which, perversely, takes even more effort.

So, subroutines are great when they free up resources, and not so great when they prevent change. Next post we’ll talk about how it works.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Rorschach

What have you seen?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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