“The real question is not whether machines think but whether people do.”
I would like to share with you a simple, but very effective, approach to becoming the best you can be. It will take a maximum of 6 minutes per day.
But first let me explain why such an approach is needed.
Your Best Self and Neural Clusters
Your senses take in information from the outside world and neurons are activated, or 'fire', in your brain. You see a blue car, neurons are activated. There's a dog in the car, neurons fire. If neurons are active, then your unconscious brain connects them. And once connected, they are likely to connect again in the future.
"… neurons fire together and wire together, and a chemical process occurs at the neuronal level called “long-term potentiation,” or LTP, which strengthens the connections between the neurons."
There's no analysis or evaluation. The rule is: if neurons are firing, connect them. Thus neurons form clusters and when a neuron in a cluster fires, so too do the other neurons in that cluster.
neurons that wire together, fire together
But, of course, a neuron may exist in several different clusters. So when it fires, it activates neurons in multiple clusters – and the neurons in the different clusters then connect. Thus, at an unconscious level, your brain is creating connections which, at a conscious level, seem to make little sense. But your conscious brain assumes that connections equal relevance. Michael Shermer labels this process of connecting, 'patternicity':
"patternicity … the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data"
Note the last 2 words. Shermer adds:
"Unfortunately, we did not evolve a baloney-detection network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine."
For instance, if you see a man in a red coat attacking someone, the neurons related to red coats will become connected to the neurons which are activated when you face danger. Thus red coats in your brain will become associated with danger. Not consciously. But if you meet a stranger and they are wearing a red coat, your unconscious brain will make the connections. You won't be aware of the connections but in your brain the possibility of danger will have activated certain processes.
In Your Brain At Work, David Rock, refers to danger triggers such as this as 'hot spots:
“Hot spots are patterns of experience stored in your limbic system and tagged as dangerous. When the original pattern that produced the hot spot (or something similar) reappears, the danger response kicks in, proportional to the degree of danger tagged to the situation.”
Although you are not consciously thinking, 'he's wearing a red coat and that means he is dangerous', your unconscious brain, having recognised a pattern, is influencing what you pay attention to and how you process information. You are more likely to see danger in the words he uses, the way he speaks, his facial expressions and body language. You may have a gut-feeling or an intuition about the person.
However, the connections are weak and will fade fast unless there is repeated activation of the neural clusters. And the same thing happens when learning new skills. Imagine picking up a guitar for the first time and trying to play a C-chord. Moving your fingers, one-by-one into the shape of the chord takes a lot of conscious effort. And if you only did this once or twice, you would be back at zero very quickly. However, with practice (repetition), forming the shape with your fingers becomes easier as the neural connections begin to fire automatically and more quickly.
Underpinning everything that happens in your brain is connectivity.
“If I had to point to the single most important thing to know about how the brain works, my answer would be ‘connectivity’.”
So what has this got to do with becoming your best self?
Let's go back in time to the moment of your birth. From your parents you inherited a starting framework; a set of neural connections that would predispose you to behaving in particular ways. Then, particularly in your first seven years, your experiences modified these connections and added new ones. Each time you encountered a similar situation, the same connections would be activated and over time, with repeated activations, the connections became the default and happened automatically.
The activation of neurons causing other neurons to fire has led many neuroscientists to view the brain as a collection of processes:
IF this happens, THEN do that.
“humans possess a collection of modules that have evolved over time and operate outside of consciousness.”
Your personality may be seen as a set of processes. Introverted or extroverted, planner or reactor, cautious or thrill-seeking, organized or chaotic – these characteristics are not the result of conscious decision-making; they are the outcome of the connections in your neural network (your connectome).
Your best self is not fixed
I used the example of learning a new skill because it shows clearly that we can rewire; we can make new connections. So, while you have a predisposition to think, feel and act in particular ways, you can develop alternatives. The original connections will still exist but now you have a choice. By, metaphorically, pressing pause, you can choose how you behave in any situation.
" … moment by moment we choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, we choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense, and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves."
In other words, you can choose your best self, the version of you that is most effective in a particular set of circumstances.
Change is hard because these are automatic, unconscious processes. You are not aware that they are running. If you are to create new options, you need to be able to identify the triggers for the unconscious processes and then consciously intervene. The 3R Approach will help you to do this.
The 3R Approach to becoming your best self
The 3R Approach will require around 6 minutes each day. Here's how it works.
3R Approach Overview
At the end of each day, find a place free from distractions and then spend 5 minutes on replaying and reviewing your day and then considering how you may refine (change) your approach in similar situations in the future. You should make notes – not an essay, just a few bullet points. The next morning, you spend 1 minute reviewing your notes and reminding yourself of the refinements you have decided to make.
First, go back in your mind over what happened during the day. Thinking particularly about your feelings and thought processes and the events that triggered them: conversations, setbacks, successes, the behaviour of others …
You should be a dispassionate observer, not seeking to justify or problem solve, merely to recall.
What were you thinking and feeling at the time? Were your thoughts focused on:
- solutions or problems
- what you wanted to achieve or what you wanted to avoid
- what you did well or what you did badly
- what other people were thinking
- lessons learned or mistakes made
- praise for others or apportioning blame
- the big picture or minor details
By reviewing and reflecting on your experiences – and your thoughts, feelings and behaviours at the time – you can begin to identify your own unconscious triggers and thought patterns.
Finally, you consider how you would like to have reacted. In relation to specific events, ask yourself:
'If I could re-live that moment, what would my best self have done differently?'
You REFINE what will happen in the future. Refinement is not only about RE-action, it is about PRO-action: what will you be seeking to do differently. For example, you may decide to be more assertive with a co-worker or speak up during a meeting or take positive steps to avoid falling prey to temptations like snacking.
But remember – you need to reinforce the connections by repeating the new ways of thinking and acting.
Over time, you may begin to recognize that certain situations, moods, energy levels, types of people and so on trigger particular patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. I strongly urge you to make notes since some patterns may only become evident if you are able to connect your insights over an extended period of time. Plus, the act of creating notes helps to embed your insights in your mind.
6 minutes a day to become your best self – or selves!
The end of day 3R routine should take a maximum of 5 minutes. You may feel that little can be achieved in 5 minutes but the power of this approach is in the small steps – we are not seeking instant radical changes but rather incremental improvement towards being the best version of you. There are 3 reasons for this:
- it takes time to identify triggers and their associated feelings, thought patterns and behaviours
- because attempts at revolutionary change usually fail – it takes too much effort to overcome deep-rooted neural pathways
- perhaps most importantly – it is 5 minutes because EVERYONE can spare 5 minutes
Next Day – 1 minute
Review your notes the next morning and then your week's notes at the end of the week and the beginning of the new week.
You may feel that you are not achieving much in the first days of using the 3R Approach. Gradually, however, as you become aware of your patterns and your antennae become tuned, you will sense a trigger and thought pattern 'in-the-moment'.
And then you can press pause and choose to be your best self.
 Behavioural psychologist BF Skinner
 The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science Norman Doidge
 Dr Olaf Sporns
 Professor Timothy Wilson
 Professor Michael Merzenich