Some thoughts on the complexity of our minds, by Gideon Killion, MA, LPC, counselor and coach in Denver, Colorado.
Not long ago, a client said to me, “Sometimes it feels like I’m more than one person inside. I worry that maybe I have a little bit of that split personality thing.”
“That’s actually really normal,” I told him. “I often feel that way myself. I think most people do.”
There is a rare, but real, and very serious psychiatric condition called disassociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder or split personality disorder. This client had none of the symptoms of that condition. More on that, at this end of this post.
I went on to tell my client that, at least in this culture, we often believe that a mind is, or should be, a single, unified, coherent thing. Sometimes people talk about “figuring out what I really want” or “finding my true self.” It may be an innate way to perceive ourselves, or it may be a holdover from religions and philosophies which have taught us to view the person in terms of body, spirit, soul, and so on.
This view can create a lot of stress when you have thoughts and feelings that don’t fit how you see yourself or the person you want to be.
Yet at other times, we appear to be intuitively aware that there is more going on between our ears. It’s very common to hear someone say something like, “Part of me wants this, but another part of me wants that.” And this awareness is closer to reality.
I recently read a fantastic book by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, called Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. The author reveals that our brains are collections of systems that work somewhat independently to process data from our senses and from other parts of the brain.
Most of these systems operate outside of our awareness, have different priorities, and often do not agree with each other. These parts make their votes known to our conscious selves through instincts, intuitions, emotions, and unbidden thoughts. When we have the experience of being stuck, unable to act, or of going back and forth between different attitudes and behaviors, it reflects a real conflict between these systems.
Understanding this can help you. First, it gives you permission to accept parts of yourself that are inconvenient, embarrassing, or dark, because you know that everyone has their own. You can focus on meeting the needs of these different parts in healthy ways, rather than ignoring or disowning them and having these unmet needs make life more difficult.
Of course, as I said at the beginning, “disassociative identity disorder,” aka multiple personality disorder or split personality disorder, is a real thing. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5, a person with this condition has more than one personality state that can involve distinct behaviors, emotions, memories, and so on. If you are concerned that you, or someone you care about, might actually have this condition, please contact a professional mental healthcare provider.
Denver counselor, therapist, and life coach Gideon Killion shares some thoughts on making technology work for you.
If you’re like most people, you don’t go anywhere without your phone. Unfortunately, if you’re like most people, you have a love/hate relationship with it.
Smartphones can make our lives easier, more efficient, and more fun. They can also turn us into disengaged individuals who can’t look up from a screen to experience the world “in real life.”
For those of who struggle with this complex relationship, here’s some advice that has been effective for my coaching clients.
How to Let Your Phone Help You (Not Hurt You)
By making the most of what technology can offer you, it’s possible to turn your smartphone into a strong ally that support your values and goals. Here’s how:
- Smartphones exist primarily for communicating with others, so find ways to use it in increasing quality time with friends and family. Have phone or video calls with family members who don’t live nearby. Get in touch with a local friend via text to set up a time for coffee or dinner. Or use your phone to sustain a long-running group email or text conversation.
- Take advantage of smartphone apps that are designed to help you learn new habits, such as HabitBull, Loop Habit Tracker, or Fabulous. You can also use apps for specific types of activities, such as running, meditation, eating well, doing yoga, learning Mandarin, etc. Even the most basic reminder or timer app can be used to help you take a break from regular activities (especially sitting) to do things like taking a stretch break, drinking some water, checking in to be mindful of your current emotions, or making a call to a friend.
- Use your phone to listen to books and podcasts while doing housework or driving. These mindless tasks can be enhanced by taking the opportunity to learn something new and connect with the world outside of your daily routine.
Don’t Let Your Smartphone Become Your Enemy
As you probably know, it’s easy to become addicted to the constant stimulation and distraction that your smartphone can offer. That’s because occurrences such getting an email notification or refreshing your social media feed to check for new posts can provide a dopamine rush in the brain—a pleasurable sensation that is comparable to the use of stimulant drugs.
And the idea of being away from your phone might be uncomfortable. In a 2015 study, researchers found that people who were separated from their iPhones for a few minutes actually experienced physical symptoms of anxiety, such as increased blood pressure.
If you don’t want to be dependent on your smartphone to get through your day, there are ways you can regain control:
- Adjust your settings to turn off audio alerts for most things (other than emergency or weather alerts).
- Decide which notifications are truly urgent for you, and which information you can wait to manually check at certain times during the day.
- Set aside specific times of day to manually check voicemail, email, tweets, and so on.
- Use a feed reader or news aggregator site to curate news from specific sources, then set a limit on how frequently you’ll look at it (and for how many minutes at a time).
- Make a commitment to stay engaged with the physical world instead of always focusing attention on your phone. This is particularly important when you’re driving, biking, or walking across the street, when it’s not safe to be on your phone. It’s also important in most interactions with another human, when looking at your phone can come across as rude.
Smartphones can either help or hurt us. I believe that most people are happiest when they make conscious choices about how to use their phones and when to put them away. Remember, even when you’re waiting in line, sitting on a bus, or just out walking, there’s plenty out there in the real world to interact with—including other humans. Sometimes you might even use the opportunity to take a deep breath and relax.
Denver counselor, therapist, and life coach, Gideon Killion, shares some thoughts about the ways our brains skew our thinking.
Like many people, on Friday I watched the inauguration of President Trump. And like many people, I am very much wondering what the next four years are going to be like.
Studying psychology and working as a counselor has changed the way I see politics, especially the way in which we, as a nation, seem to be so divided. (Actually, there is a good argument to be made that the US is made up of not one nation but several. If you’re curious, check out the book American Nations, by Colin Woodard.)
Our brains distort the way we perceive reality
Before, I would have blamed it purely on differences in issues and values, but now I believe that our divisions actually have a lot to do with something we all have in common — the fact that our brains distort the way we perceive reality.
These are called cognitive distortions, and we’re all susceptible to them. Here’s an example: once you form an opinion, your brain — without asking or telling you — starts looking for and emphasizing information that supports your position, and it starts discounting or ignoring evidence against it. This particular distortion is known as confirmation bias. Research shows that the more you care about an issue, the stronger this distortion is.
No-one is immune
We also all share an instinct for tribalism. We have a strong tendency to see the world in terms of us vs. them: to see the group with which we identify, whether it’s a political party, a religion, a nation, or a race, as good, and to see the others as bad.
When you combine tribalism with cognitive distortion, it’s no wonder that we so often and easily divide into Left and Right and wonder how the other side could possibly see the world so differently. And so we draw the conclusion that they must be stupid, misinformed, or ill-intentioned.
Heading into a new presidential era, my hope for my country is that more and more people will become aware of how all of our brains distort our perception of the world, particularly the things we care most about. I hope more people — myself included — will make a habit of looking for and challenging these distortions in our own thinking, not just in those of the people we disagree with.
Of course, being rather cynical, I’m not holding my breath.
But if you want to learn more about our tendency for irrationality and skewed perceptions, I highly recommend the excellent website and blog, You Are Not So Smart.
I would also recommend reading any of the following great books:
- Thinking Fast and Slow, , by Daniel Kahneman
- How We Decide, by John Lehrer
- Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely
- Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert
Ariely has some great Ted talks, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?sort=newest&q=dan+ariely
… as does Gilbert, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?q=dan+gilbert&sort=newest
… and Kahneman, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?q=kahneman&sort=newest
I would love to know what you think about this topic!
I’ve been a follower of the web-zine BoingBoing.net for a long time. They’ve turned me on to a lot of cool things, one of which is another blog and recurring podcast, You Are Not So Smart. Back in October, YANSS did an episode on Mindfulness, interviewing author and meditation expert Michael Taft. After an intro that explains how this practice made its way from Eastern religion into American mainstream culture, Taft describes how mindfulness meditation can change our brains for the better, improving our ability to process difficult emotions, handle stress, focus on important tasks, and relate to other people, to name just a few benefits. (Despite the photo, the risks associated with meditating in the middle of a road probably outweigh most of the potential benefits.) Taft has a special interest in explaining meditation and mindfulness in terms of neuroscience, rather than eastern religion, philosophy, and mysticism.
Personally, I have practiced mindfulness meditation only sporadically over the past two years. Yet I can say that I have experienced some of the benefits noted above. I am more aware of the thoughts and emotions passing through my brain, but I also find that I am more able to quiet them, when I need to. After hearing this podcast, I went out and picked up a copy of Taft’s book, called The Mindful Geek, and made a decision to meditate more often and more consistently this year. I am still working on building the habit — never an easy task. I find it difficult to stop in the middle of a busy day — with all sorts of pressing tasks waiting to be completed — in order to just … sit … for 15 minutes. But I am going to keep trying, because I know it helps. If you have any meditation experiences, I would love to hear about them. Please share!