You stream a new movie on Netflix and the next day discuss it with a friend who also saw it. A particular scene, pivotal to the plot, excites you and you seek her thoughts on it. That’s when you discover you must have watched a different film. She saw details you didn’t even notice, had a quite different take on the characters you found intriguing and disliked it as much as you loved it. The whole of reality is too much for any one person to grasp.
What we think is real isn’t. It’s a fabrication our brains foist upon us. Unlike the information processing devices we use every day, our brains work more like quantum computers. Today’s computers store and manipulate information. Unlike the brain, they do this by making binary choices (yes or no, right or wrong). They’re neither intuitive nor curious – they can’t solve puzzles, can’t ask questions and can’t be programmed to ask. They are fundamentally analytical, not creative.
Quantum computers, like the brain, are generative – they leverage probabilities and reconcile contradictions and data entanglements. They try to figure out every possible answer to a problem by conceiving multiple combinations. They are transformational: they break otherwise mind-boggling encryptions, speed up the self-organizing process, and transform imagination into intelligence (what we think we know). They are capable of reducing thousands of years of information collection and learning down to mere seconds. In human terms, these are called insights.
Physicists understand quantum mechanics. The rest of us not so much. In quantum physics, every alternative possibility happens simultaneously – there are an infinite number of divergent parallel universes or alternative forms of existence. With every decision we make, we enter one of those universes. This confirms what neuroscientists have always known – that we have a wide variety of optional realities within our experiential data stream.
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Our brains have 86 billion electro-chemical microprocessors each capable of connecting to 10,000 other neurons which can produce countless associations and mental maps. If your brain were fed ten items of data per second for one hundred years, it would have used up only one-tenth of its storage capacity. So each of us has a lot of ways of conceptualizing what is real. What we select as our unique reality, or the world in which we want to live, is a consequence of the interplay among our beliefs, memories, experiences and expectations.
Neurobiologists tell us we take in over eleven million bits of sensory information every second and we process those sensations at a rate of two billion bits per second. Our conscious minds then select just .00001222 of those external impressions (about 126 bits/second on average) for rational thought; the rest (albeit subliminally derived) fuel our emotions and our sense of being. In other words, what we think is reality. But it’s just our reality.
Since no two of us have the same neurological software, no two of us can select the same reality – how we mix and interpret our internal data, including our feelings, with new inputs (such as watching that Netflix movie). Out of a vast array of alternative universes, we select our own unique one based on what we expect to happen, what’s already familiar to us, what suits our purpose at the moment, and/or what feels most comfortable. We choose this preferred reality based on a mental sorting process of deletion, distortion, reframing and generalization.
Our reality is informed by our memory. It too is a concoction of our minds and therefore rarely accurate. We share a common memory of an experience with someone else and they stare back at us and say, “Well, that’s not quite how I remember it at all.” Because our memories are fluid, they change with time. We combine existing recollections with every new experience and, when these new thoughts are added to our memory banks, they’re woven into the fabric of the original experience. Our memories are entirely self-serving – a mix of fact and fiction and reconstructed every time we recall them. The fate of what we remember is determined for the most part by how much it means to us.
Every life contains millions of decision points. Some big, some small. And every choice promises a different outcome. We can control our choices but not the consequences. We have as many different realities as we have possibilities. There has never been anyone quite like you before and there never will be. You are a unique being. And there is an inexplicable, unmeasurable power in fully comprehending that truth. By changing our focus or our expectations, we can change how we feel about things.
To do so, we need to know how to talk to our brains. Just as a computer has a language of bits and bytes, your brain does also. This language is known as your preferred learning mode. The conscious and unconscious parts of the brain speak quite different languages – your logical brain might tell you to eat healthy and exercise regularly but your emotional brain, resident in the limbic system, might override that advice and say “it’s okay, just stay in your comfort zone. It’ll be easier.” Your brain prefers easier.
We need to use the sensory triggers the brain understands. Our unconscious mind doesn’t process negatives. If I tell you not to think of the colour blue, you will. If you say to yourself “I can’t fail this test,” your mind hears, “Fail this test.” The brain is organized to do what it expects will happen. If you’re a golf duffer and you tell yourself “don’t put it in the sand trap,” the likelihood is that’s where you will find your ball. The unconscious part of the brain evaluates options in the context of our existing mindware, which is programmed in our early years up to about the age of thirty. When you catch yourself thinking about the negative, switch to the positive of what you want to happen. Then, watch your reality change.
Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in our uncertain, turbulent, ambiguous world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that may matter even more: the ability to unlearn. In his classic, The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler wrote “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
Mental horsepower doesn’t guarantee mental dexterity. No matter how much brainpower we have, if we lack the willingness to change our minds, we miss the opportunity to see things differently. The simple process of questioning the status quo activates the imagination. Once there, we’ve engaged our creative side and that’s where new choices and insights reside.
Changing your mind is rethinking who you are. It’s mentally healthy to separate your past from who you are today. If you can’t acknowledge how uninformed you were a year ago, you haven’t learned much in the past year. Changing your mind means you’re re-evaluating your priorities. It means you’re forging new neuronal pathways. It means you’re growing. George Bernard Shaw said “those who can’t change their minds can’t change anything.”
The curse of knowledge is that it closes our minds to what we don’t know. Recent experiments suggest the smarter we are, the more we struggle to update our beliefs. Good judgment depends on having the skill, and the will, to open up our minds to new possibilities. And a hallmark of wisdom is knowing when to abandon some of the most cherished parts of our identity. If we can’t change the situation, then we must endeavour to change how we think about it. Believe it, then just do it. Because we live in the place our brains create for us. Simply put: change your mind, change your reality.