It’s mid-afternoon. Working from home. Five meetings deep. Battling the post-lunch slump. Stifling yawns. Back aching. Attention slipping. The fridge beckons.
Once you become aware of your desire to get up and head to the fridge, your brain has already invested millions of neural connections into the decision to do so.
You now have 0.2 seconds to work with, from the moment you became consciously aware of being about to head to the fridge for a snack, to the moment you start to stand. This 0.2 second interval is long enough, with practice to notice the urge, and intervene.
And notice we must, as it requires ALOT more cognitive effort to stop ourselves from polishing off a tub of humous/a bag of Pom Bears/anything with chocolate in it, once we have already started the process of doing so.
We can’t control all of the neural signals sent out by our brains before we become aware of what’s going on. In any one moment a mind boggling 40,000 neural impulses are firing in between our ears, the vast majority of which we will remain blissfully unaware about. BUT.. we do have the power to consciously ‘veto’ urges that are sent to our awareness from the other 95% of our brain. We can choose whether or not to act on our impulses.
As Dr Jeffrey M Schwartz explains, us humans may not have much free will but we do have free won’t. Maximising the potential of these precious 0.2 seconds, to gain greater control over our urges, starts with awareness.
Once we can discern the small time scales that make up the process of each impulsive action, we can start to notice urges as they arise, and as they unfold. Author of Your Brain at Work, David Rock, describes this process as ‘Brain – signal – desire – movement’. Once we become aware of our desire we have a small window to inhibit our movement.
Holding on to this idea of how we might inhibit an urge takes up valuable space in our prefrontal cortex, an energy-hungry, space-limited resource. The limitations of our prefrontal cortex are never more apparent than when we are tired. When our intellectual brain is running on empty, and we are pouring vast swathes of our cognitive capacity into staying awake, there is little space left to notice, let alone stop the urge to snack.
Herein lies the importance of words. Language, as David Rock puts it,supercharges our ‘veto’ power. If we have the words to describe a pattern of thinking we will be much more likely to notice it.
Building our language around what on Earth is going on inside our brains, brings this once- mysterious processes into our conscious awareness where we have more control over how we manage them.
A key focus on Solution Focused Hypnotherapy is building this language to strengthen the network of connections between our intellectual conscious minds and our emotional subconscious minds. We learn that the process exists. We colour our understanding with language – words that bring the process into our conscious awareness. Then we draw on this understanding when we need to, achieving greater control over our urges when they strike.
So at 3pm on a Tuesday, when the fridge sounds it’s familiar calling hum and the cupboards subconsciously serenade us towards the snacks, we know that we have a 0.2 second slither of time. A gift of 0.2 seconds in which we can express our ‘free won’t and choose to refuse.
Rock, D. (2009). Your Brain at Work. New York: Harper Collins