Why We’re Chasing Our Tails

I’m going to stick my foot out and say part of what keeps us away from tasting that elusive thing called ‘happiness’ and why many of us are on the verge of a nervous breakdown is because our minds drag us from one sensation to the next, never settling in the present.

Our mind is always ‘flitting’. It’s a leftover from the old days when our lives depended on it. Back then if we didn’t keep flitting our focus in all directions, something with large teeth would have come up behind us and had us for lunch. We were always on the lookout for opportunity. In this culture we don’t need to flit but we still do because we there’s so much out there to stimulate us; to taste, drive, wear, snort etc. Our lives are crammed to capacity.

We exercise to get the body of a porn star even into old age, bake the kids cupcakes, have everything waxed and hairless, nails painted, hair coiffed, be CEO of your own company, oh, and keep your husband interested so he doesn’t ditch you for a firmer version of you. There are people out there who don’t care about any of this and they are the blessed. I love neuroscience especially when it helps me to understand the human condition.

Whatever we focus our attention on creates a whole cascade of chemicals while the neurons wire up to new partners in the neuronal dance that never stops. Every millisecond, we shift our attention and each time the brain does a complete makeover, with each new shape we embody a different state. And because the mind is always shapeshifting we scamper from one state to another.

Luckily, we come equipped with an autobiographical memory, which is the file we carry of all the experiences we’ve ever had. so it can give us a pretty quick feedback of who we were in the past and important information such as favourite colour, name of first cat etc. If we didn’t have that you’d be like the guy in the film Memento, having to look at the tattoos on your arm to figure out who you slept with the night before and if you’re male or female? The autobiographical memory is the story of you so far but like you’d do with any book you’ve read, some parts you exaggerate, others you rewrite or just get it confused with another book.

Where we direct the spotlight of our attention, defines who we are in that second. Whatever you imagine or experience becomes a physiological reality on your neuronal map. If you’re in Hawaii but your mind is still working late at the office that is where your mind registers you are, the neurons only connect when you’re focused on one thing therefore laying down memory. If you’re multi-tasking, forget it you may get things done but you won’t remember any of it.

We change as does our internal landscape each time our environment changes. If you’re in a cinema watching a chase scene, the wiring of your brain manifests a pattern of terror and thrills, producing rivers of adrenaline. After a minute you shove popcorn into your mouth, your attention refocuses signalling the saliva glands to start pumping and in this next moment your whole being is the essence of salt and crunchiness. A sex scene starts, boom! If you’re a man, you become virtually a bag of testosterone. Next time you look in a mirror remember that’s not really you only a small fragment of the whole picture.

I’m on tour this summer and a utumn talking about neuroscience and mindfulness with my Sane New World show. Find out more on my website.

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