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Your brain and the mind hold the secret to your ability to change: “The mind is the seat of consciousness”, writes Olivia Goldhill, “the essence of your being.” Without a mind, we are not meaningfully alive, she adds. But what exactly is the mind, and where is it?

If the brain can be clearly defined as the physical substance, then is the mind the conscious product of those firing neurons?

Yet the mind goes far beyond the physical workings of the brain. Dan Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and founder of the Mindsight Institute, describes his (and our) exploration for a definition of mind in the title of his book: Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human.

This article looks at both brain function and mind capacity to explore the linkages between the neuropsychotherapeutic and cognitive behavioural approaches that facilitate changes in the brain. The working model of behaviour change used here will not only demonstrate that change is possible but also help people to understand that, while change is indeed possible, it is not necessarily instant.

A needed behaviour change for many people might be to change a pattern of repetitive thoughts or internal dialogue. For example, repetition of dialogue in one’s head is a behaviour that, when repeated over time, can become habitual and/or addictive. While some habitual behaviours (for example, personal cleanliness) are clearly beneficial, others are the opposite of this and may be considered to be negative and/or inhibitive behaviours. From a brain perspective, the process of repetitive thoughts has been described as neural looping. If the thought—and the following behaviour—inhibits progress in life, then it is negative in nature. The neural loop starts in the limbic region of the brain and loops up through to the right prefrontal cortex (RPC). The limbic region, particularly the amygdala, stores negative emotional experiences, and looping in conjunction with the RPC results in negative thinking and actions. Internal dialogue associated with beliefs and values can also be activated.

THE CHANGE BEHAVIOUR MODEL

IDENTITY

Like the human brain, the change behaviour model works from the bottom up, illustrating that our identity—how we think about ourselves—needs to be the first place to start to activate change. However, in many practices, whether coaching or counselling, we often start at the top, with thoughts, attitudes, and feelings.

As the diagram indicates, 90% of what needs to change lies beneath the surface. What is seen by others represents just 10% of who we are, and that is displayed by our behaviour. This 90% is internal and stored in the brain, mind, and body.

Our behaviour is impacted by our own self-perception, or who we think we are (our identity);   our beliefs and values (some of which have been brought into our present from the past); and our thoughts, attitudes, and feelings. All are stored in the neural network of the brain—stored behaviours that contain multiple thoughts, attitudes, feelings, emotions, values, and beliefs that are ultimately displayed by behaviour, which is then presented to the world around us.

This, I believe, is indicative of a combination of brain, body, and mind capacity.

The therapeutic model I have developed combines a brain-based cognitive behavioural approach with my own work encompassing “ego states”. Emerging from this model is the Executive State Identification (ESI) mapping tool that enables the identification of states that can inhibit our progress toward goals or support us moving forward. I began developing ESI mapping in 2008 to enhance behaviour change by identifying and naming the states.

Based on the idea that states are embedded in the neural network of the brain, the ESI mapping tool has gained international recognition for its simplicity and effectiveness. It allows the practitioner and the client to access and name states that are embedded. Once these have been identified, profiled, and mapped into a sequence, a client is in a far more effective position to begin to bring about the changes needed to achieve their goal (or goals). Clients take ownership of their situation as they map and identify their states with the ESI practitioner, and gradually through growing self-awareness, they begin to identify differently, gaining a greater understanding of when these states were formed. Change can only occur through self-awareness, hence the effectiveness of the ESI mapping tool.

The various elements of the change behaviour model are described below.

THOUGHTS

How many thoughts does the human have in a day?

I was unable to find an accurate answer from a reliable source. Some stated 70,000 thoughts, others 40,000 or 50,000 as the correct number. So how many do we have and are each of these thoughts uniquely different? If we take the figure of 50–60,000 a day, that works out at around one thought every second. Let’s accept this as a reasonable and acceptable estimate.

Are these thoughts always new thoughts? I suggest that many thoughts, like behaviours, are repetitive, but each one can still be counted as a separate thought. Repetition of thoughts equates to repetition of behaviour. We are reasonably described as “creatures of habit”!

We still do not know how thoughts are created in the brain. This is known as the “big question” in neuroscience. But we do know that thoughts arise through a process where neurons transport chemicals to the synapse, enabling an energy charge to cross the synapse to another neuron, in what is called an action potential. The brain’s primary thought-building element, therefore, starts with a brain cell—a neuron—and is activated by chemical processes in the brain that send messages along the axon and across the synapse to another neuron. These messages determine the mental processes that we experience as thinking.

The term “thought” generally refers to any mental or intellectual activity involving subjective consciousness: it can either refer to the act of thinking or the resulting ideas or arrangements of ideas. I also suggest that not all thoughts are our own; they could come from a universal and/or a collective consciousness. The universal mind (or consciousness) constitutes the broader, collective thoughts around a way of life, or religion; or a way of being, such as culture and world view. The collective mind consists of energy fields of thought that can become your thoughts, although sometimes not. Collective thoughts are not always “your” thoughts.

Media, social media, TV, video, news, and other people’s ideas impact greatly upon our thoughts, changing or perhaps rearranging them. For example, the media can play a part in altering your thinking. Look at the current political battles that are occurring around world leaders. Each different media source will suggest a different perspective and your thoughts may align or maybe not align with the reported information.

Here is how it works: an energy field of thought may travel through your mind (from an outside source) and if it resonates with any of your own thoughts it will adhere to the thought in your mind and become yours!

Energy fields are like bubbles of thought that float around—you notice them and decide if you will add them to our own bank of thoughts or discard them, and whether they are true for you or not – a self-relevance. These are elements of your awareness. A negative bubble of thought can negatively impact your mind and possibly even adhere to a negative thought you may already have about yourself, and if it attaches to an existing thought (such as I am not good enough) then you are more likely to believe that the external thought is true.

Your own mind is the place where you become aware of your thoughts and decide if they are true for you or not. Your mind is where you have awareness. In the change behaviour model, thoughts are at the top of the iceberg, and in order to change behaviour, thoughts need to change. This can be very difficult. First, one would have to ask:  Whose thought is this? then How long have I had this thought? and Is it still true today?

Awareness is essential in sorting out the appropriate and inappropriate thoughts. Have you ever found yourself in a situation, maybe when you were a child or a younger person, when someone may have said: Oh, you’re not good enough to attempt that or You’d be mad to take up that challenge? I remember a time when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I’d won a ballroom dancing contest and my name was mentioned in the local newspaper. As I’d never seen my name in print before in a newspaper, I took a red pen and circled it several times. When my father saw this, he told me that I was boasting, and that I should accept the win graciously (and in silence I guess). My immediate thought was I’m not good enough, and I carried that with me for years. That thought would rise to the surface when I was faced with a new challenge that was way outside my comfort zone. It was a thought that became a state for me when, in fact, it had come from my father—so an external, collective thought, transferred to and held on to by me.

That thought rose to the surface when I published my first book, The Many Parts of You. After doing all the research and gathering the case studies together, my transcript was edited and then went to the printer to be produced. The boxes arrived at my home, and I sat with the I’m not good enough thought (or state) for quite a while until I allowed another thought (state) to take the executive position.

Have you ever been consumed with thoughts that may have held you back from achieving success? I hope it is becoming clear that if you are to change a behaviour, thoughts around that behaviour must change.

Don’t allow your thoughts to destroy the pathway to your goals.

ATTITUDE

An attitude is an expression of favour or disfavour toward a person, place, thing, or event; Carl Jung defined it as a “readiness of the psyche to act or react in a certain way”.

Jung observed that attitudes very often come in pairs, one conscious and the other unconscious. An unconscious attitude can be a past experiences that may once have been supporting, yet in the present reality it is questionable or false, and so the conscious attitude is quite different and even opposite.

To give a personal example: I once held an attitude toward those who had better qualifications than me as people I wouldn’t be able to associate with. This attitude possibly stemmed from my background where neither of my parents were educated to any extent and whose networking circles were limited to family and friends in similar circumstances. As my education expanded and my networks grew, I realised that I had held a conscious attitude toward educated people that was from my past, and the unconscious attitude I retained. My change in conscious attitude shows how an unconscious attitude from the past may not be supported in a current-day conscious attitude.

Unconscious and conscious attitudes are sometimes in alignment and sometimes not. When your attitude is out of alignment (as in my education story) it is referred to as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is simply a mental battle going on in your mind that doesn’t support your motives. It can be experienced as confusing inner mental chatter. In some cases, this battle can disrupt a positive direction toward goals. From an ESI perspective, cognitive dissonance is when two states are in conflict with each other.

There can also be a form of dissonance when rational and irrational attitudes conflict. This can also interfere with your approach toward your goals.

A rational attitude can be subdivided into thought and feeling functions that can be either positive or negative. For example, if you were to rationalise that you’d never be as successful as a high achiever, your attitude toward yourself could be one of “less than”, or that the other person you perceived as a high achiever was “better than you”.

An irrational attitude can be subdivided into sensing and intuitive functions. This is when you hold a belief that something may or may not happen, resulting in an attitude that is not based on reality. For example, your attitude toward a particular outcome is based solely on gut feeling with no substantial or reasonable support (for example, when your teenage child is late home from a party and you become concerned for their safety), or when someone passes a critical comment toward you, you question its validity rather than consider whether the comment is reasonable.

Another example relates to my work in correctional centres in New South Wales, Australia. My rational attitude toward the prisoners is that they are human beings just like me, even though they have chosen a different path and undertaken different behaviours in life to me. We share goals and desires in life that are sometimes the same. On the other hand, an irrational attitude, which would be based on sensing and intuitive functioning, might be a fear that I might find myself in compromising situations with these men despite all the protections and safeguards that I rationally know are in place.

Feelings and Emotions

While feelings and emotions are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between them.

According to Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience at the University of California, feelings are “mental experiences of body states” that arise as the brain interprets emotions, which are themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli. The mental processing of a horrifying event occurs in this order: I am threatened (event), experience fear (emotion) and feel horror (feeling): “Emotions play out in the theatre of the body. Feelings play out in the theatre of the mind”.

Emotions and feelings support thoughts, both organising and disorganising thoughts; and, along with thoughts, emotions and feelings will directly impact upon our behaviours, actions, and reactions. Thoughts, attitudes, emotions, and feelings are played out through behaviour.

By sharing a personal experience, it may encourage you to explore your emotional past as well.

I remember the feelings that my mother and father held toward people of different cultures. Although very conservative, these feelings were true for them. My parents were British, but I was born and grew up in Australia in a location with very few “foreigners” in our neighbourhood. Conversely, my life today is surrounded by people from all over the world; I have travelled extensively overseas, and the Internet connects me to thousands of culturally different people. I believe that if I were to carry the feelings and emotions of my parents’ attitude, then I would certainly be unsuccessful in my life and in my business. This is not to say that my parents were not good people, only that their world was different to mine. In their world emotions were conservative and in my world my emotions and feelings toward success stretch to infinity!

I am excited when I think of the possibilities of success and continue to marvel at how I feel when my dreams can be lived in the expanse of this world. My world feels universal. My parents’ world was limited to their local community.

BELIEFS

Once upon a time there was a princess who lived in a beautiful castle and she was waiting for her prince to come . . . 

Can you remember, as a small child, how stories from books and your own imagination impacted upon your beliefs. According to Henry Epps, mainstream psychology has “traditionally treated belief as if it were the simplest form of mental representation and therefore one of the building blocks of conscious thought”. Some beliefs are intrinsic, formed during early developmental years. Some of these beliefs remain through to our adult years, some are changed or altered at various periods of our life, and some hold true to our identity while others do not.

The belief that a princess waits for her prince is a belief I let go of many years ago. Today princes can be found in public bars. Mary Donaldson from Tasmania, Australia, met Frederick, the Crown Prince of Denmark, in a pub in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics; she married her prince and is now Princess Mary of Denmark.

To hold a belief implies the existence of mental states and intentionality: if you believe you will be successful, you set an intention to succeed.

Beliefs can be divided into core beliefs—those that are actively thought about—and dispositional beliefs—those that are ascribed to someone who has not thought about the issue.

A simple example of a dispositional belief is this: in response to the question “Do you believe that tigers wear pink pyjamas?” a person might assert, “No they don’t!” despite never having thought about that situation before.

A belief is a mental state that resides very closely with our attitudes toward different people, situations, places, or events. Beliefs are represented in the mind as sentence-like constructs and can contribute to your internal dialogue that supports or inhibits who you are and what your goals may be.

VALUES

Values reflect our sense of right and wrong or what “ought” to be. Is it appropriate to suggest that values should be changed? Why would you want to change a value that you might hold dear, such as honesty? It is reasonable to assume that you would not want to change that value at all.

Let’s look more closely at values. Values can be ideals like “equal rights for all”, “excellence deserves admiration”, or “people should be treated with respect and dignity”. If these are values you would live by, it can be upsetting if someone in your family or circle of friends challenges them. Values are important as they can influence your beliefs, feelings and emotions, thoughts and attitudes and, in turn, influence your behaviour.

For example: if you value equal rights for all and you work in an organisation where managers are treated much better than workers, you may form the attitude that the company is an unfair place to work. Consequently, you may not perform well, or you might leave the organisation. If the company had a more egalitarian policy, however, your attitude and behaviours would be more positive because there is a match—a congruence—between your values and the organisation’s values.

Values can form in response or in relation to external influences: the way that you were brought up, your parents’ values, your peers, and others. Some of these values, although formed in childhood, will still be true for you today, but some values may have changed over time. Life experiences, and the people you associate with, assist to form values, but also to confirm or change values over time. Enmeshed in your goals are your values. These may include values associated with yourself and those values you extend to your external world.

If, for example, your goal is to achieve high earnings, but your values toward money are insignificant or resistant, then there is an incongruence. From a brain perspective, there would be cognitive dissonance—a battle between states. In a situation like this it is likely that the value will be the stronger state (i.e., low value toward money), therefore the goal may be disrupted or not achieved. This requires adjustment of the goal or of the value around money. The factors that contribute to the change will depend on the individual. Which would it be for you? Values are often entwined with beliefs that were formed in the past and might be irrelevant today.

To resolve this dilemma, it would be necessary to reconsider the value given to money, and to ask the following questions:

Is it important to you to earn high dollars from your career?

Are your current earnings sufficient, or would you like more?

If your goal is associated with money, is your value around money limiting your ability to achieve your goal?

If, for example, your goal is to achieve high earnings, but your values toward money are insignificant or resistant, then there is an incongruence. From a brain perspective, there would be cognitive dissonance—a battle between states. In a situation like this it is likely that the value will be the stronger state (i.e., low value toward money), therefore the goal may be disrupted or not achieved. This requires adjustment of the goal or of the value around money. The factors that contribute to the change will depend on the individual. Which would it be for you? Values are often entwined with beliefs that were formed in the past and might be irrelevant today.

CONCLUSION

As I said at the start, significant change in behaviour begins with looking at your identity: who you are and how you identify yourself. Identity and behaviour must be in congruence. If you find yourself striving yet not fully achieving, for example, it could be that a state developed at a young age is holding you back, such as a false attitude or belief, or any other factor. All these factors are set out in the ESI change behaviour model.

By starting at the base of this model, with identity, it becomes clear that once you know who you are, or who you see yourself being, the other key factors begin to change in a domino effect.

This model has been used in face-to-face counselling, coaching, and training in corporate contexts and with prisoners with great success. It demonstrates how the limbic region will hang onto beliefs, traumas, and incidents from the past, where they may lie dormant, but once triggered, will rise to the surface and confront your identity.

With a strong sense of self, and working through the factors of the model—engaging a whole-of-brain activity—identification of what adjustments are needed for realignment is possible.

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