“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”
“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.
-Franz Kafka, “A Little Fable”
The brain is often compared to a computer: both integrate, store, and process information. This analogy can be a useful to help conceptualize something as infinitely complex as the brain, but, as nearly any analogy will, it ignores the differences that exist between the two types of systems by overstating the similar. The most significant of these differences are the manner in which information is processed and the capability of the system to adapt and restructure itself. This article- written with all the necessary oversimplifications- is about how understanding these differences can give you the tools to change your life by changing the way you think.
Most of us don’t have a very good grasp on how computers work. When we think of computer language, we think of 0’s and 1’s, arranged in an esoteric sea of never ending nonsense. In computer jargon, this is known as a binary system, where each unit of data is known as a “bit” and assigned a value of 0 or 1. Fortunately for us, these numbers mean something to the computer, which makes sense of them by evaluating each unit serially, one after the other after the other. Because each bit is given a defined, singular value, the processor can only make one computation at a time.
This is not how the brain works. The brain is composed of roughly 100 billion neurons that are connected to each other in about 100 trillion different ways. When you consider the sheer amount of information that you are bombarded with at any given moment, and that most of our processing occurs instantaneously, it is clear that the serial approach is not practical.
Instead, the brain handles information in a manner more analogous to quantum processing. A thorough discussion of quantum processing is beyond the scope of both this article and my/ everyone’s understanding, but what is important is that there are two main differences in this approach. First, each “qubit” (your basic information unit; usually an electron) does not simply exist as a 0 or 1, as in a computer, but until a measurement of its value is taken, it exists in a superimposed state, as both 0 and 1 (see: Schrödinger’s Cat). Because the quibit can exist undefined, your quantum processor is capable of performing multiple computations simultaneously. As a corollary of this phenomenon, processing does not occur serially, from A to B to C to D, but from A to B and to C and to D, etc.
If you wanted to determine the shortest route between New York and Los Angeles via highway, a serial processer would evaluate each route, painstakingly, one at a time. In contrast, a quantum processor would begin at New York and simultaneously proceed through all available routes until the most effective route was determined at the end of the computation process. The point isn’t that the quantum computer is faster (it isn’t, necessarily), but that the number of computations required to reach the result is significantly smaller because they occur at the same time and avoid redundancy.
This is not to say, however, that when you are looking at the words on this screen, the information carried from your retina to your optic nerve to your superior colliculus and lateral geniculate nucleus to your occipital cortex is then indiscriminately passed to every area of your brain in order for you to make sense of it. Here, we realize the second major difference between the brain and a computer: the brain can learn which pathways are most efficient or appropriate, so that with training, processing occurs primarily only through a single route. In brain jargon, this learning process is known as pruning. As an infant, connections between areas of your brain run amok; everything is connected to everything. With time and experience, your brain gets rid of the vast majority of these connections. Your experience shapes the topography of your brain by eliminating the noise.
Let’s pretend that you are learning how to swing a golf club (something I was never able to do). Anyone who has played golf will attest to how complex this seemingly simple series of movements can be. When you begin, every step of the movement requires your scrutiny, and at first it seems as if you can only focus on one thing. Worry about your posture and you don’t turn your hips; turn your hips and you forget to break your wrists; try to move slowly to get it all right and some new flaw rears its ugly head. Yet with time and sustained effort, each component of the swing becomes practiced and no longer requires the same degree of attention. Professionals like Tiger Woods and [insert other golfer here] move with fluidity and grace, their swing rehearsed so many times that it is all but automatic.
When you first begin to learn a motor skill, our limited attention is only able to focus on a component or two of the movement, and the circuits underlying the action are immature and forming. Yet with continued practice, the appropriate pathways become more efficient at working together, so that in time, only cells optimal for the movement are recruited. “Automatic” is the key word here. When you become expert in executing a movement, its execution no longer requires that same deliberate, conscious attention it did when you began.
As a citizen of the 21st century, I hope that I do not have to waste words convincing you that everything that you have done or experienced is made possible by the activity of neurons in your brain. Emotional states, memories, and decisions alike are rooted in the same principles as learning a movement. Your personality can thus be understood as your default neural network, the circuits that have been and continue to be activated preferentially above other pathways. The baseline level and location of activity that you enjoy give rise to your mood, your habits, and your disposition.
If you were to return home from a weekend away and discover that your roommate had eaten all your food, how would do you react? Like the quantum processor, your brain begins by evaluating the potential outcomes of multiple actions simultaneously. Do you demand your roommate pay? Do you eat his/her food? Do you let your fuming subside and try to have a productive conversation about respecting boundaries as roommates? Unlike the quantum processor, your brain doesn’t (necessarily) arrive at the most efficient course of action, but instead, if you aren’t deliberate with how you react, at the most practiced. If you are like me, the first thing that would happen is that you would feel angry. Anger is an emotional/ brain state associated with specific neural activity likely to arouse you to behave in an aggressive manner. Cue uncomfortable encounter.
Yet however strong your disposition towards anger is, you have a choice to not express that anger. This non-aggressive behavior- deviant, perhaps, from your norm- correlates with a different network of brain activity, and that in choosing to act differently, you are strengthening the network associated with that behavior, making it both easier and more likely that you will make a similar decision in the future. Some of us are better at this sort of deliberate thinking than others (i.e., the compulsive, the addicted) so much that it may seem like these decisions- how we think or act- are being made for us.
In this regard, we might be said to exist on a spectrum of mental discipline: those of us who can exert control over their thoughts and those who cannot. Yet regardless of where you fall today, with time, practice, and much effort, you can change.
If I ask you not to think of a purple-polka-dotted elephant juggling mangos, your mind does exactly the opposite (mmm…juicy mangos). The more you try to suppress a thought, the harder you struggle to push it down, the more force it comes bubbling back up with. This is because the process of generating a thought is a feedback loop. Once an idea pops into your head, the more you grapple with it, the more tenacious it becomes. This is where the importance of choice becomes apparent. The key to exerting your free will is to be able to redirect your stream of consciousness to consider other options once a mental loop has begun.
…Which brings us to the mouse, that lamentable, pitiful creature. Kafka wrote without the benefit of modern neuroscience, but his parable demonstrates a deep understanding of the way that perception works. To the mouse, a world once terrifying with possibility is at first made bearable by the appearance of walls because the decision of how to progress has been made for it. The mouse picks a way forward, and it sticks with it. The mouse epitomizes the stubborn thinker. If we were to examine his brain, we’d find a single preferred circuit, incredibly proficient at doing only one thing. This proficiency comes at a cost: profound inflexibility.
Kafka’s mouse bears all the hallmarks of life- flesh, breath, heartbeat- but it is no more than a clockwork orange, a pulpy exterior hiding gears and pistons. It is the serial processor, so defined in its ways that regardless of the stimulus or circumstance it is presented with, it responds in the same way: by making the same single computation endlessly, unaware that a choice even exists. The mouse represents the compulsive, the addicted, doing the same thing over and over and over again while hoping for a different result. Once it begins on its track, it believes it has no choice but to continue in the only direction it has known; it believes it “must” run into the trap.
If you find yourself sitting around all day craving food/ booze/ drama, read a book, go for a run, just get up and do something different! You must repeat this process, over and over and over and over, until it becomes second first nature. We aren’t trying to control every thought we have. We are trying to strengthen our free will, to learn mental flexibility so that we might simply let go- not push down!- of the undesirable and redirect ourselves towards something more productive. Notice how you stopped thinking about the juggling elephant when you started thinking about something else!
If this seems abstract or theoretical, here’s a thought experiment. Take a moment to note your mood, and then imagine:
You return from work one day and find that your home has been forcibly entered. Inside, there is ruin. The windows are shattered, the tables overturned, the pots, pans, and plates scattered amongst what was your kitchen. You find the person in this world most dear to you, bent over a chair, bound and gagged and mutilated. The face is hardly recognizable as the one you once loved, the eyes beaten in, the smile you beheld so many times sagged and ruined. Kneeling before the person you value most, you catch the faintest glimmer of recognition, and then nothing.
This is a just a thought experiment, right? If I can change your mood by inducing a thought, imagine how a lifetime of thinking could make you feel- it doesn’t just influence your mood, it IS your mood. By learning to summon the strength of mind to weave your thoughts into a purposeful direction, you could at will feel the bliss, or the misery, you so desired. Being a deliberate, active thinker means choosing what to think about. It is that step in the thought process where you let go of what is gripping you and recognize that you have a choice to take your mind somewhere else.
How do we know that free will does exists? Who is to say that the spontaneous generation of a thought doesn’t initiate a cascade of events where the outcome is already decided by past experience and disposition and choice is only an illusion?
We don’t, but here’s a theory: you choose what to pay attention to; you choose how to think. If you can decide how to process- similar to the serial or the quantum- you can orchestrate those evasive neurons in your brain, master the electric potentials that flow between them, strengthen the networks of your choosing, and with time and much deliberate effort, shape the topography of your brain. Do not misunderstand me: this is incredibly persistent, difficult stuff. At the time you are reading this, you have already spent X years entrenching yourself in your own brand of thought. Believe what you want about free will (which is in itself a choice), but if you do not recognize thought as a decision, you will forever live as a slave to your stream of consciousness, to the ghost in the machine, to those not-so-little voices residing in your head. Heed Kafka’s warning. If you don’t like the way you feel, challenge the way you think. It may not be easy, but it is as simple as you allow it to be.
All you have to do is change direction.