Most of us grew up conditioned to think about thinking in a fairly mechanical way: funnel in enough facts, process them through enough discussions and arguments and brainstorming sessions and revisions, and you've created something, an essay or a talk or an algorithm or a vacuum cleaner.
What goes on inside the mind, well, that was evaluated by IQ tests and standardized testing, but it wasn't really explained.
Today, we're waking up to the realities of that internal process in a big way.
We know, for example, that performance on tests, including IQ tests, correlates heavily with environmental factors - a healthy and sufficient diet, a healthy family life, exposure to reading and learning in a family environment, healthy and regulated electronics use, and so on.
But that's barely the beginning...
Your Mind with Exercise
Forget losing ten pounds, sixpack abs, running marathons, winning that football game - by far the most important thing that exercise will do for you is to improve your mental wellbeing.
Exercise not only increases levels of key neurotransmitters associated with clarity and wellbeing, it has been shown to be essential in staving off dementia and helping with other neurological problems.
Your brain is part of a living, breathing body that thrives in movement - and your brain is designed in part to make that movement happen.
Your Mind In Flow State
We've all experienced it - that ball that went just where you wanted it, that article that seemed to write itself, that conversation that just went so perfectly. That creative flow state is something that star athletes, top speakers, top performers in many fields, can reliably produce.
So how come most of us only happen upon it by accident?
Well, there are a few things that will definitely destroy the flow state - like anxiety, tension, preoccupation, sensory distractions splitting our focus. Even trying to grasp this state, or any outcome, guarantees not finding it. Paradoxically, excessive logical thinking will also push it away. The thinking we do in flow state can be quite logical, but of an order we can't seem to attain through logic alone.
If the flow state could be summed up in one word, it would be "oneness". When we are present and open to what's in front of us, without tension or fear of overplanning, things can just come to us.
So how do we get there?
One of the best methods, which we've written about before, is called dissolving meditation. Scan down your body, and feel where emotional tension is stored physically. Bring your energy to it, and allow it to relax.
Your Mind and Its Culture
How you perceive the world has a lot to do with how your mind was programmed from an early age to see the world. Every serious spiritual tradition has said for thousands of years that the world you perceive is more about what goes on in your head than what you take to be objective reality outside.
For instance, Eastern cultures can process certain things much differently from Western cultures.
Language also plays a role in structuring our reality.
But so do the lenses we pick up from our parents, teachers, friends and popular culture. Consider a common belief of the middle and lower classes in Western society: I have to make it on my own. Accepting help is weakness. Consider the related belief Hard work and merit will be reflected in economic success.
The wealthy do not hold these beliefs, and do not live by them. They are always helping each other out. It's how they stay on top. Elite schools, like the famous Eton College, instill the kind of leadership that exploits the confidence bias we'll discuss below, which is much easier to pull off than leadership earned by merit.
What these beliefs, these lenses through which we see the world, really do is, first, prevent us from helping one another to succeed, and second, trap us in low self-esteem because of our lack of success.
We all need to take a hard look at the lenses we and our friends and family take for granted. We live in a soup of these beliefs that stand between us and reality, because someone we listened to interpreted the world that way.
The distorting lenses are often easy to spot, at least in other people. They'll be the ones that are jarringly discordant with every value they claim to cherish.
Your Mind and Its Cognitive Biases
As human beings, not all our distorting lenses are learned - some of them are innate. The single biggest cognitive bias is ego, and the second is anxiety.
Ego filters everything through the lens of us - our utility, our pleasure, our importance, and thus it distorts our everyday interactions, garbling every communication and making every interaction and discussion less productive than it could be.
Anxiety is essentially stored bad experience coming back to bite us - a sort of learned self-protection so subtle that we don't even realize our thoughts have run away with us until it's too late. That's the simple version.
The bigger picture is that anxiety starts with a simple survival response that no doubt served us well... when we were worrying more about wolves and lions than test results and performance reviews (I'll take the lions, thanks very much). Nowdays, it can carry on indefinitely, fed by all the little threats to our wellbeing in society. It takes up residence not only in our minds, but in our bodies.
Other cognitive biases can also come from far back in history, the shorthand judgments that have served as organizing principles for human society.
Most of these haven't really served us that well, like confidence bias, believing that the confident person has better ideas. Harvard Business School found out the hard way about the results of that one, as documented in Susan Cain's book Quiet.
Another is tribal bias, tending to seek safety in the types of people we usually associate with, even when it harms us to do so, and suspecting those who don't fit in that demographic.
A few other cognitive biases we commonly trip over:
Seizing Real Freedom Starts in the Mind
Now more than ever, we all have the possibility of taking our minds and our consciousness to the next level. The information and the tools are out there.
Now more than ever, our minds our besieged, by a relentless flow of all of society's accumulated negative emotions, anxieties, counterproductive beliefs, distractions and general busyness.
Many of us are consciously trying to manage what goes into our heads. We also need to understand how to influence our own thought processes, to improve the quality of our perception, and ultimately, what we put back out into the world.