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Mindful Neuroscience: Normal Versus Natural

Editor's Note: This article was authored by Stefanie Faye, for the Institute for Organizational Mindfulness (IOM). Thanks, Stefanie!

When you’re learning or creating something new, your brain-body system requires a set-up of micro-movements and attentional control that it is not currently using. It requires a neuro-mechano-chemical combination that it may never have attempted before.

Learning or creating something new can include:

  • A new combination of movements you’ve never done before

  • Typing words you’ve never typed before

  • Emailing someone you’ve never met

  • Speaking to a family member in a way you’ve never tried before

  • A new habit, behavior, project, work of art, business, relationship, mindset

  • A new level of your business or personal relationships, wellbeing, sense of fulfillment

The Brain Needs New Experiences

If it’s new and doesn’t yet exist - and you are taking action in order for it to come into existence - it is an act of learning or creating. It’s an observable, tangible expression (even if no one else is around) that has never been expressed before.

This always requires some form of movement. Even if that movement is subtle - if you’ve never done it before, and the result is something someone else could give feedback on - it’s a new creation. When you are acting in default or a static mode of operation, the movements are familiar. And so the neurochemical state is familiar.

It’s easy to scroll through social media. It’s easy to watch television. It’s easy to shop and play video games on your phone. All the stimuli and goals are there.

In consumption mode, we don’t need to know about optimal brain functioning for solving problems. If you’re really tired or have brain fog, going on your phone to scroll or play games won’t feel difficult. It may even feel like a boost because of the ease of getting your hit of reward hormones. During that consumption period, the stimulus magnetically pulls your awareness in ways that lead you to forget that you don’t feel fulfilled at your job. Or that you can tell something is missing from your relationship. Or that you’d like to feel better in your body.

Consumption Mode is Comfortable

When you consume excessively, that neuro-mechano-chemical mode becomes so familiar that the more challenging mode of learning and creating can become something your brain-body system avoids whenever possible.

This might be normal behavior for many people. But normal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s our best option.

Normal is based on historical data. It’s based on what has happened the most often in the past. Our past "normal" may not prompt us to seek greater wellbeing or a deeper sense of meaning for our life. (this goes for us as individuals as well as for us as a society and species). It’s normal to feel "meh"- ok, but not great - to accept running at about 60-70 percent of our potential (if you could put a number to it).

But what we really, truly, deeply need to understand is that the normal mode of consuming and doing the same combination of movements day after day without challenging our brain-body to higher and higher levels of creation and exploration is not NATURAL.

The term "natural" refers to the inherent nature of a system or object. About its inherent capabilities and features. It’s natural for a chair to stand still. But a chair isn’t a system. It doesn’t need other chairs or objects to perform its function as a chair. It’s also not complex and it’s not adaptive. There is nothing inherent about the components of a chair that would get it to do anything differently.

Humans, however, are systems. And in particular, we are complex adaptive systems. There are inherent features of us that are natural. The more we align with our nature as complex adaptive systems, the more we develop our complex, adaptive capacities. That means we get to solve our own problems more efficiently and effectively. And as we move through one realm of complex adaptability, we get to level up again and become even more masterful problem solvers.

We Thrive With Complex Problem-Solving

Our nature is to climb higher and higher on a never-ending ladder of complex problem-solving. When we consume and repeat, without seeking out new problems to creatively solve, we degrade and deprive our mind-brain-body’s inherent faculties. When we stop creating new combinations of movement, thought, sensations that get expressed in tangible visible ways, we are going against our own nature.

The expression of what we feel inside, into visible, tangible, and mechanical energy, serves the purpose of creating a feedback loop that is complex and adaptive. If we don’t release our thoughts and feelings and energy into new series of movements, we block our brain from getting new feedback. When we don’t give our brain new and changing feedback, we rob it of firing in new ways, where networks that were never connected before can create an association.

While rigidity and excessive repetition result in suboptimal functioning, connectivity and flexibility are key to the highest level of functioning because they lead to various responses for new and unfamiliar situations. Responding to new and unfamiliar situations is the pinnacle of human-ness. It’s why we are found in almost every kind of ecosystem on the planet, regardless of whether that ecosystem is actually habitable. If it’s not, we create something that’s never existed before in order to make it work (think of air conditioning and pipelines bringing water to Las Vegas in the middle of a desert as an example).

What I’ve observed over the years is that when people engage in constant consumption (I especially see this with phones), they become less able to respond adaptively and creatively to a new set of stimuli. Unfamiliar situations are more likely to overload or overwhelm their system. They are not used to using these extremely sophisticated - yet NATURAL - faculties of the human nervous system.

Being on the phone or whatever that very repetitive behavior is (this includes sleeping excessively, sitting, and ruminating about a situation) becomes ‘normal’ to them. When they feel too mentally tired to try a new perspective or behavior, they think it’s normal to not really "feel like it". Because they’re not challenging their brain-body system, they also don’t support it with the nutrients it needs to function at a higher, more creative level. If all you do in your downtime is scroll or play games on your phone, it doesn’t really matter if all the sugar you consumed that day is making you fatigued.

What You Can Do Today

Here are some ideas about how we can align with our nature as complex adaptive systems from a mechano-behavioral level. The following IDEAS acronym is a rhythm I’ve found helpful for moving through the learn-create-express process. You can also download this as a free worksheet.

Ingest: Yes, we need to ‘consume’ information. Take time to explore a completely new field you’ve never learned about before. Just don’t stay stuck here.

Digest: Look for how to connect what you’re learning to how it manifests in your own life and what you observe in others. Draw, diagram, journal about it.

Express: Find a way to talk, draw, teach the information you’re learning about that applies to your life, and think about how it can help solve some type of problem. Does it make you feel better somehow? Sometimes a new perspective creates a mindset shift that helps you see a situation more clearly. Try to describe or express this to someone. Feedback from someone adds essential data to the problem-solving process. The relevance of my content comes from a never-stopping process of explaining what I’m learning to other people (through posting, coaching, teaching).

Adapt: After expressing what you’ve learned or created to someone, integrate the results of this into your understanding. Repeat the entire process again from this new level of complexity.

Systematize: Find ways to make this a habit or routine. I wake up every morning with a ritual. It involves meditation, gratitude, journaling, brainstorming, and diagramming. I then seek out a new perspective. The new ideas I learn about can come from hearing someone on a podcast the day before, looking at recommended titles on Amazon as I search for a book I heard about it, or from reading the references on a research article I enjoyed. Sometimes it’s just an idea that pops into my head. Even if I have no idea how it could be related, I still look into it. For example, if tree root systems or radio antennas pop into my head, I look them up! It is ASTOUNDING the types of connections we can make when we continually expose ourselves to new information.

The more we make this a habit and a system, the more our brain-body system develops abilities to notice the relevance of data for problem-solving.

We are Complex Adaptive Systems

Our NATURE is to adapt to ever-changing, increasingly difficult, and complex situations that involve other complex systems so that our adaptive problem-solving faculties become more honed and finely tuned.

Think to yourself, what is something that you have accepted as normal that may actually not be your most natural behavior?

P.S - Because of our complex nature, human-to-human relationships and interactions are some of the most challenging forms of problem-solving we can test our limits with.


Stefanie Faye is a neuroscience researcher and clinician. She has been consulting in countries across the globe and works to bridge the gap between complex research and practicable application. Through group training, development seminars, and lectures Stefanie helps individuals find new ways of using their talents, discomforts, failures, and challenges as pathways to growth and evolution.

Institute for Organizational Mindfulness (IOM) is a membership association of researchers, educators, and executives, with a shared mission to bring science-based neural training into the mainstream of business, healthcare, education, and government. We're working to create a global community of shared experience, conduct research, define standards and practices, develop educational programs, and determine the measures, metrics, and analytics for organizational mindfulness.

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