Your brain is a marvel. A soft, mushy, wet marvel that can change your life.
Not instantly, because making sustainable change takes time.
And you’re more stubborn than you realise.
Because your brain is one smart cookie and you need to get under the hood and rewire it if you want it to think differently and create lasting change in your life.
Your brain is an anticipatory organ
That means that your brain is constantly working in future tense – whether that’s 2 minutes from now, 3 weeks from now or 10 years from now.
An example of this is when you look at something in front of you with your eyes.
Your brain is actually telling you what you’re seeing faster than your visual cortex can recognise it.
If you think about eating a piece of cake, your brain will release the right amount of insulin to break down that piece of cake – even when there’s no cake (which is always a bummer).
But your brain is super efficient, and you want it to be, because you’re always dealing with so much stimulation that your brain creates shortcuts to get stuff done with less cognitive power.
For instance, things that you always do, like grabbing your keys on the way out the door, is something that takes very little brainpower. Walking – putting one foot in front of the other, how to balance your body to stay upright – is something that you do without thinking.
But when you were learning how to walk, it took you months to figure it out because it was new!
But once your brain learns how to do something, it also learns where it can create shortcuts. That way the things that need to run on autopilot do so.
And this means that your brain is always anticipating what’s coming next and getting ready for it.
We predict ourselves into existence.– Anil Seth, Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality
That’s why you only have to visualise a piece of cake – think about how much you’ll love eating it, picturing how it’ll taste – is enough to prompt your brain to go, “Oh, okay, she’s thinking about eating a piece of cake, she’s prolly gonna have that piece of cake soon, so let me just go ahead and get the insulin for that cake ready”.
This means that, if you’re thinking about cake, you’re prolly best off just eating the damn cake.
Your brain has something called mirror neurons that make this possible. Maybe you’ve heard about mirror neurons in the context of smiling?
A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when you act and when you observe the same action performed (by you or by someone else). This is how the neurons “mirror” the behaviour they see as though they themselves are doing it.
Your brain doesn’t know the difference between when you’re doing it or when you’re seeing it done.
This is something that dancers and athletes are very familiar with because it’s part of the job.
If you’ve ever spent any time around dancers, you’ll see them use visualisation constantly. They’ll routinely visualise a routine or choreography ahead of doing it, or when committing it to memory.
This is because there is a limit to what your body can do, and there’s no point in burning out your body practicing something that your mind doesn’t have a clear understanding of.
So, dancers will do something called ‘marking’ where, instead of doing a full routine to music, they’ll gesticulate the approximate movements with their body and in their mind see their body doing the maximum movements.
Marking their movements to the music allows them to learn the routine better and more efficiently.
Visualisation is such a large part of a dancer’s job that if you get injured, you’re by no means excused from rehearsals. As soon as you’re able to attend, you’re expected to come in and watch rehearsals because you learn so much from watching other people successfully doing what you want to.
And when you’re not in rehearsals, you’re running through the steps in your mind, committing it to memory and working out the finer details. As you visualise, you think about how each movement feels, what kind of articulation you’re expressing in your arms, wrists and fingers, legs, ankles and toes.
The benefit of visualisation that it allows you to pause, stop, rewind and endlessly re-live sticking points.
For instance, when you’re struggling with a transition, you can go over it again and again in your mind, letting your brain figure out what the best way for you is to get from position A to position B. And when you get back in rehearsals, you test and experiment and pick the way that works best for you, reinforcing that mental learning by echoing the exact same thing in your body.
All with the goal of perfecting the execution of the choreography.
The pinnacle of a dancer’s craft is to make a performance look effortless, give the audience a false sense of ease. When you manage to make the dance look effortless and spontaneous, you know you’ve reached the highest level of your craft.
Achieving this isn’t possible without visualisation.
Program your brain to think how you want it to think
And the rest of you will follow. No joke.
Obviously, it isn’t enough to only visualise what you want to change or achieve, but it’s the most powerful tool you have at your disposal for creating change. And it’s free!
Harnessing the power of your brain behind any endeavour is setting yourself up for success – at least you’ll be a lot likelier to achieve the goals you set for yourself.
And once you get your brain on board, thinking about it and working in problem-solving mode, it’ll gather data and start creating those vital shortcuts.
In fact, we’re all hallucinating all the time, including right now. It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, we call that reality.– Anil Seth, Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality
What do you want your story to be?
In her TED Talk, Lori Gottlieb talks about how you can change the story you’re walking around with right now about how your life is.
Why your life is the way it is, why you made the choices you did, why things went right, why things went wrong, why you treated someone a certain way (they obviously deserved it), and why someone treated you a certain way (you obviously didn’t deserve it).
Because stories are how you make sense of your life.
But have you ever stopped to consider if the story you’re telling yourself is incomplete? Or misleading? Or just downright wrong?
What if, instead of giving you clarity, your story is keeping you stuck?
We assume that our circumstances shape our stories. But what I found, time and again, in my work, is that the exact opposite happens: the way we narrate our lives shapes what they become.– Lori Gottlieb, How changing your story can change your life
The danger in the story you’re telling yourself lies in its power. This also means that by changing that story, you can change your life.
So, take a step back and look at your story:
- Is the protagonist (you, the main character) moving forward or running in circles?
- Are the supporting characters important or are they a distraction?
- Do the plot points reveal a theme or pattern?
- What material in the story is unessential?
The stories you tell yourself tend to revolve around two themes: freedom and change.
Does this story about freedom sound familiar? You believe, in general, that you have an enormous amount of freedom.
Except when it comes to the problem at hand – in which case, you suddenly have none.
Because a lot of the stories you tell yourself are about feeling trapped in your circumstances, right? You feel imprisoned by your job, your family, your town, your relationships, your past.
Or maybe you’ve imprisoned yourself with the “everyone else’s life is better than mine”-story that you read every time you go on social media. Or the “I’m unlovable”-story or “I’m not good enough”-story.
What’s really happening in these stories though, is that you’re the prisoner in your own emotional jail, poking your nose out from between the bars and desperately shaking them calling for the jailor to come let you out.
But what you’re not seeing is that if you move to the left or to the right, you’d see that there are no bars there.
It’s open. And you’re not in jail.
Instead, you feel completely trapped. And you don’t walk away from your bars to freedom because you know there’s a catch.
Freedom comes with responsibility.
And if you step up to take responsibility for your own role in your story, you’ll have to change.
And you might be craving change right now. But when you say, “I wanna change” are you really saying, “I want another one of the characters in my story to change”?
It’s the ‘if the queen had balls she’d be the king’ dilemma. But that makes no sense.
Why wouldn’t you want the protagonist, you; the hero of the story, to change instead?
Maybe that’s because change involves a surprising amount of loss. Yeah, even really positive change. Because how can you change without changing? How can you be different if you don’t let go of the familiar?
Even if what’s familiar to you really sucks, changing that means losing it. You know it so well because you’ve seen the plot play out a thousand times, you even know the recurring dialogue by heart.
There’s a certain degree of comfort in knowing exactly how that story is going to end. After all, we’re programmed to fear the unknown, and starting a new chapter, rewriting your story in a new direction, is venturing into the unknown.
And you can’t write a new chapter without staring at a blank page.
Which any writer will tell you, can be terrifying. But venturing onto that new page and rewriting your story, is also incredibly empowering and liberating. And once you start, writing the chapter after that becomes easier and easier.
Unknowing yourself is part and parcel of knowing yourself.
You have to let go fo the current version of yourself. It’s the only way you can actually live new chapters of your life, rather than living an endless re-run of the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life. This is the only way to walk around that emotional jail and venture out into freedom.
Only you can rewrite your story
Think of a story that you’re currently telling yourself that may not be serving you very well.
It could be about a person in your life, a relationship, a circumstance you’re experiencing – it may even be about yourself.
Next, I want you to examine the supporting cast. Who are the people and things that are helping to uphold this wrong version of your story? Who are the people in your life that are simply going along with your story, agreeing with your point of view of it?
If a fight breaks out in every bar you’re going to, it might be you and not the bars.
And lastly I want you to think about what you’re leaving out of the story. What would happen, if you wrote your story from another person’s point of view?
In writing, this is called a point of view: what is the narrator (you) not willing to see? And if you can write your story from the perspective of another character, suddenly that other character becomes much more sympathetic, and the plot opens up.
What would you see from this wider perspective?
By rewriting your current story into a much more nuanced one, you’ll see so many more possibilities open up for how your story can continue.
The story that eventually gets written about every one of us
It’s called an obituary. And you wont’ have any control over how that’s written.
But you have the chance now to shape how your story will go.
While you’re still alive you get to be the hero in the story, instead of the victim. You get to choose which words go on that blank page and into that story that lives in your mind and shapes your reality.
Life is about deciding which stories to listen to, and recognising which ones need editing or rewriting. And going through a revision is absolutely worth the effort because there’s nothing more important to the quality of your life than the stories you tell yourself about it.
When you’re writing your own story, you should be working on a masterpiece.
If you get to choose the story of your life, why write one of those novels you can buy at the supermarket checkout?