The easy brain trick to increase happiness RIGHT NOW (it’s simpler than you’d think)
Your brain is holding you hostage from happiness.
Not on purpose or anything, it’s just too damn smart.
It’s one of the reasons we grow bored of our romantic partners, feel disconnected from the world, and get stuck in dull, unfulfilling lives.
Luckily, a guy named Daniel Siegel found a neurobiological (that’s a fancy word for brain) trick that you can do right now to increase your happiness and set you free from your brain’s constraints.
It was a game changer for me, and continuously helps me embrace all the weird stuff in my life with joy and wonder (even though it’s just as mundane as the next guy’s).
Dr. Siegel dives into the neurobiological details of this trick in his books, particularly in The Mindful Brain, where he also explains a bunch more complex brain stuff in a really captivating way. But for those of you interested in living a happier life in the next five minutes, here’s a summary.
Top-down processing: why it’s awesome and also why it sucks
As you know, cavemen were stupid.
It’s not their fault, though, since they didn’t quite have brains like we do nowadays. The brains people develop now have evolved over time, starting with the ancient parts we share with the cavemen (and every other vertebrate) and ending with the cortex; the glorious add-on right behind our forehead that helps us reason, asses risk, control impulses, be self-aware, and a ton of other advanced cognitive skills.
Clearly, the cortex is pretty important. So of course it is the last to develop, fully maturing around age 21 for women and age 25 for men (doesn’t every relationship you’ve ever had suddenly make sense now?).
Obviously the cortex is an amazing addition to our brain, and we are better functioning people because of it. But are we, really?
I mean, yes, we are, but it comes with a cost. It makes us smart, but a little too smart. It is always collecting data points about the world as we experience it, and speeds things up by using our background knowledge and expectations to influence our perception of things.
To use the example Dr. Siegel does in this video, when we are out walking and see a flower, our cortex thinks, “F-L-O-W-E-R. That’s a flower.” You’ve already smelt a flower, you know it’s normal to see flowers outside, and you already know flowers are colorful. So you move on.
Thanks to the pattern detecting cortex, that flower is barely even a blip in your conscious thinking. This is called top-down cognition when we use information we’ve already experienced (the big picture at the top) to influence our perception on what we are experiencing now (the small thing in front of us at the bottom).
It’s awesome and efficient and smart as all get out. But it also sucks.
Because by allowing past experiences of flowers to impact our perception of THIS flower, we are completely missing out on actually experiencing the wonder of the flower right in front of us.
No wonder we grow bored of our romantic partners, feel disconnected from the world, and get stuck in dull, unfulfilling lives.
To extend this to our romantic lives; the efficiency of our anticipation machine brain leads us to believe we already know everything about our partners. This in turn disconnects us from experiencing them as the brand new human beings they are whenever we see them, which ultimately leaves us living a dull life where our past experiences constrain us from experiencing our surroundings as they actually are in THIS moment.
Compared to the cavemen, our smart brains are a handy tool to have, but they also imprison us from happiness.
Take a second to honor this major life bummer and reflect on a few areas your own brain has constrained you from living happily in the present moment. Don’t worry, it’s safe to feel some mini-grief right now, because the story doesn’t stop there. There is a way to set yourself free.
It’s called bottom-up processing.
Bottom-up processing: how to set yourself free
I’m not saying I want to go back to being a caveman (er…cavewoman), but I would like to cultivate what Dr. Siegel calls, “beginner’s mind.”
Beginner’s mind means having the ability to rely on the ancient parts of our brains that interpret and experience our five senses to perceive things as they are right now, instead of as we expect them to be.
This is bottom-up processing: allowing our senses to direct our awareness and understanding of what’s in front of us.
In top-down processing, we pretty much ignore most flowers because our brain patterns tell us they are just like every other flower. In bottom-up processing, we notice the flower, the vibrancy of the color, we stop and inhale the flower’s smell, we reach out to touch the smooth petals, experiencing this flower how it is in this moment without any pre-conceived notions blanketing our experience.
In bottom-up processing, everything is brand new. Everything is a miracle.
When we see our partners through our beginner’s mind, we drop our expectations of who we think they are and instead experience them as they are in the present moment, as new people. In bottom-up processing, we can’t help but feel deeply connected with the world because we are experiencing everything that is in the present moment, and it’s hard to live a dull life when everything is miraculous and new.
As Dr. Siegel says, “The pathway to freeing ourselves is through learning how to dissolve our top-down constraints.”
So I’m just gunna leave that right there and let you think on it for a while. If you’re interested learning more about how to dissolve your top down constraints, mindfulness is a great place to begin. Here are a few links to get you started:
Originally published at ourweirdlives.com on June 26, 2018.