Transforming Our Internal Universe – Part 2 : The Feedback Loop

This post revisits the  topic  of my previous blog, Transforming Our Internal Universe on changing our brains and how we can release encoded memories and break old habits in order to rewire our minds for greater performance and overall enjoyment of life.

To summarize, in order to change, grow and develop ourselves, we need to demonstrate a will greater than our circumstances and then adopt new habits by initially breaking old ones. Being provided with instant feedback from the responses of our environment as we act and do things greatly assists our personal understanding of the consequences of our actions, for example, as a child when you first touched fire, the feedback was immediate: a burn.

Similar principles apply in more sophisticated forms later in life: as we apply a method of relating to others, at work or at home, their reactions teach us how to adapt our responses to various persons, for the best possible outcome in our communication. The same applies to our work and living habits: a certain way of doing things, such as handling our pile of documents on our desk or setting up a schedule of appointment for the week, may be efficient in which case the outcome (feedback) is immediate and positive: the way we organized ourselves saved us time and effort while fostering a sense of achievement. This type of feedback is self -reinforcing: the more we do of the same, the more we reinforce a habitual way of doing things.

At times, the feedback is less successful or can even be disastrous. If our communication is not well received or not understood, it potentially leads to tense moments when interacting with others. The way we keep organizing our desk leads to the loss of needed documents, generally at the very time they are needed, or we keep our schedule in such way that we miss an appointment.

This type of feedback, after it happens a number of times and doesn’t lead to a desired outcome, tells us that it is time to change the way we are handling things.

We seek to create new behaviors and ways to do things to create the outcome we desire. Accordingly we look for positive feedback. This in turn reinforces our idea that we can adopt this new strategy and it gives us the motivation to pursue it and refine it.

Change requires first that we become aware that something is not working and not serving us. It then requires that the discomfort is great enough for us to want to take steps to get back to a state of satisfaction. It then requires intent. The matter moves from “ something’s wrong “ to “what” to change to “how “ to change it.
The question “how” happens often as we are feeling the full impact of discomfort, stress or even distress about our current condition or issue. It is generally at that stage that we start educating ourselves through self-help or various educational books or any methods on the topic relevant to our issue. Because we are exploring brand new ways to do things, the question now moves from “can I change it” to “how can I change it”, as we become more aware of the issue and grasp ways to solve the issue.

At that point, intent and will power come into play. We consider will as the ability to choose a course and stick to it, no matter what. A simple example would be the decision to stop smoking or lose weight. With will, we believe we can quit cold turkey, or stick to a low calorie diet for the weeks or months it takes to reach ideal weight. We build up our resolve through positive words, creation of a plan, enlisting friends’ support, and many other devices.

“Sticking to it” is the key. This method works for many but not all. Along the way, a cigarette will be smoked and a chocolate cake will be eaten. This may lead to a sense of failure, with the thoughts “ I am weak”, “I can’t do it”. Some will then give up and return to smoking and high calorie diets, while others will persist and give another try at “sticking to it”. The issue becomes that as ‘failures’ pile up, we become much less motivated to give it another try. What can we do then, except for giving up?

There is another approach to using our will and intent: it involves being realistic and expecting failures along the way, and in doing so, we can make the failures more manageable. This requires being aware that what has been wired into our brain for months if not years (e.g., a smoking habit) can not be undone through a statement “just like that, I can will” (please see my previous blog: Transforming Our Internal Universe) for information about how we create and keep habits not only at the thought level, but also how our whole body sets a “normal” threshold of arousal through our biological systems’ operations and creation of chemical cocktail releases, as well as wiring of our neural pathways).

In essence, all our behaviors are not simply the result of habits and mental processes. We have to take into account that we have neurologically wired ourselves to maintain those habits and that not only mental, but also physiological process within our bodies must be taken into account. If behavior and bodily responses are changed, it can re-align thoughts and emotions that are repetitive and habitual, and all those in turn lead us to repeat behaviors of which we are no longer aware, because we are on auto-pilot.

So how to achieve change? It will not happen merely by discounting the strength of our wiring and implementing a new behavior through will alone and which we stack upon old wiring. If this were the case, we would end up with competing drives. Instead, we have to undo the current wiring of our synapses in order to create new wiring, along a new path and then make that path habitual so that associated chemical releases in our bodies change too, until we have developed strong mental connections that lead to a new habit of doing, thinking and feeling.

The key to the will element is to stick to a realistic expectation as we go and in our decision to use a number of tools to reach this goal, one tool being REPETITION of a desired new behavior or pattern of thinking and its associated emotions. Some other tools are: developing awareness of our current wiring, and learning simple techniques to develop such awareness, so we can catch ourselves in the moment and undo the wiring while also implementing, right here, right now, an alternative response. Finally, we need awareness to observe the feedback and draw lessons from it.

If the feedback seems to be the outcome we seek, then we have a new path to pursue by reinforcing our wiring build-up and fostering new cocktails of chemical releases in our bodies. If the outcome is not what we sought, we can seek a brand new path or a slightly different one so we can tweak the responses, or feedback we get.

It is a slow process, made of trials and errors, and hence exercising will is not to “quit smoking” (this is our goal) but to stick to steps that allow us to build our will, and as we become more proficient, leading us toward our goal.

In doing this, we consistently align body and mind and observe our emotions, to foster change, because our being is congruent, without pulls and pushes from one part of ourselves against the other. This ‘consistent’ observation of self and alignment is not a difficult technique to learn and takes no time to implement. It consists in replacing outdated and no longer useful thoughts with new ones. Once such method as been applied to one area of your life, it becomes ‘wired’ too, as memory, thought and behavior, and also as body sensations and physiological and chemical processes, and finally as emotions. You can then draw on this knowledge, where you whole self is ‘aligned’ to now tackle other aspects of yourself that you want to improve, using this same technique over and over again.

In essence, we learn to notice and analyze the feedback we get before and as we change, apply some techniques to develop greater awareness of the various processes going on in our bodies as beacons and compass, do the same with learning to accurately define our emotions, use tools to defuse our thoughts as they relate to what we want to change, learn to operate in the now, moment by moment, and rest our chattering mind and in doing this using our intent or will to REPEAT a new pattern, which in turn creates new neural pathways in our minds.

Those tools and techniques will be the topic of my next blog.

Link to Wired Article on line:
http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/06/ff_feedbackloop/

Author: Pascale Aline

Psychotherapist & Performance Coach, I specialize working with tools for self enhancement, growth, productivity and healing (Biofeedback, EMDR, Mindfulness training)

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