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This One Common Thing Could Be Damaging Your Brain

Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #374) and blog, I talk about learning how to use the mind well and why it is important to manage our thinking, feeling and choosing to avoid “milkshake multitasking” and mental overload.

The mind is more than a “machine” that runs nonstop. It is an extremely complex driving force that runs the brain and body. The mind “shows up” in the brain and body and becomes our “aliveness”. Our minds are where our identity and uniqueness are formed. It is where who we are is recognized—our consciousness.

The mind runs 24/7. When we are awake, we use our minds to build the experiences of life into our brain and our body; at night, we use our mind to sort out the thoughts that we have built while awake.

If our minds are unmanaged and messy, our brain and body and how we run our life (our lifestyles, our words and actions, or everything we do and say) will also be messy, and our mental and physical health can suffer. Because our mind is such a vast and intricate part of our being, we must recognize that mind management is an essential, ongoing skill necessary for life, and that there are no quick fixes or shortcuts when it comes to how we manage our minds.

One thing to avoid doing if we want to train our mind and brain to think deeply and wisely is to avoid what I call “milkshake multitasking”. There is much research providing evidence of the benefit of deep, intellectual thought versus multitasking in the brain. Deep, intellectual thinking activates the prefrontal cortex (just above your eyebrows) in a positive way, resulting in increased concentration, less distraction, more effective switching between tasks, decreased emotional volatility, better decision-making and an overall increase our ability to “get things done”.

On a conscious level, we should not be paying attention to everything all the time, because we cannot consciously act on everything simultaneously. Our conscious mind is not made to multi-task; it is meant to do one thing at a time because it is the part of our mind that is doing the actual process of learning new information. When we try to multitask, research has shown that our ability to develop deep insight, creativity and intelligence can decrease.

The key thing here is to understand the different parts of the mind. Our conscious mind system does not have the capacity to do a bunch of important, demanding tasks at once. Our nonconscious mind, on the other hand, is much faster than the conscious mind, and goes way beyond multi-tasking into synonymous processing, which enables us to talk and drive a car,  cook and talk to friends, and so on.

What we are generally doing when we think we are multitasking is actually switching between tasks using the conscious mind in a very disorganized way. Doing this draws energy from our brain and creates something akin to a dust storm in our minds, which can affect our energy levels and even our mental and physical health. It also means that we are more likely to make mental errors and we cannot give what we are doing the attention it deserves.

When we multitask, we end up with what I call “milkshake thinking”, which is the opposite of deep thinking and good mind management. Every rapid, incomplete, and low-quality shift of thought makes a “milkshake” with our brain cells and neurochemicals, which is the opposite of how the brain is designed to function. When we consciously try to jump rapidly from one task to another, we essentially cloud our ability to concentrate and think deeply, which impacts our ability to do a task well, leading to unnecessary levels of anxiety and stress in our life.

This kind of multitasking also affects working memory, which occurs in the conscious mind. People who are multitasking will be less likely to retain information, and this can affect daily problem-solving tasks.

We can, however, consciously learn how to manage our attention and choose what to pay attention to instead of jumping from one task to another. This includes learning how to mono-task quickly and effectively instead of multi-tasking ineffectively—it is possible to get more things done better in a shorter amount of time without multitasking! This can be something as simple as making a choice to put your phone on silent during a meeting or asking people not to disturb you while you are working on a deadline.

Mental overload is another thing that can affect our ability to use the mind well. As mentioned above, we all need to learn how to use our mind to change and “reprogram” the brain. This kind of mind-management, however, is a lifestyle, not a quick-fix. Our mind never stops, so we need to learn how to constantly manage our minds. The more we do this, the more self-regulated we become.

My research and clinical experience have shown that to prevent going backwards into previous states of toxicity and mental overload, we need to develop healthy mind-management routines. Behavior change doesn’t happen in 1 day or 4 days or 21 days, as is often stated. It occurs daily in cycles of 63 days, which I have demonstrated in my clinical research and applied therapeutically over more than three decades. In chapter 14 of my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, I explain how to use the system of mind-management called the Neurocycle that I developed as a daily routine to clean up the messy mind and reprogram the neural networks of the brain, which includes 7-15 minutes of directed self-regulation each morning. (I also walk you through this process in my app Neurocycle.)

The Neurocycle is a great way to deal with the root of the toxic cycles causing mental overload in your life, reconceptualizing them and how they impact your genetic expression. It is done in 5 steps:

  1. Gather awareness of what you are feeling emotionally and physically as you work on a toxic cycle in your life.
  2. Reflect on why you feel the way you do—be as specific as possible.
  3. Write this down—this is way to help organize your thinking and gain clarity.
  4. Recheck what you have written. Look for patterns in your work life, your relationships, your responses, your attitudes and so on.
  5. Take action. I call this step an “active reach”. It is essentially an action you take to reinforce the new, reconceptualized pattern of thinking you want in your life (which is replacing the old, toxic cycle).

As you go through the five steps of the Neurocycle, you can learn how to reverse engineer toxic issues by tracking backwards from the signals these produce (emotions, behaviors, physical feelings and perspectives) to the thought behind them (the root or origin story they came from). You can also use the Neurocycle to be proactive in building new healthy lifestyle habits and managing day-to-day challenges. This is both empowering and hopeful!

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