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Mindful Neuroscience: a Self-Aware Mindset

Updated: Jul 1, 2021



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


Understanding the Role of Mindset


We can't change our reactions or behaviors if we don't realize they are being driven by our mindset. We can't change our mindset if we don't realize we have one. A mindset is a 'setting' of our mind. It's a pattern of neurochemical and motor activity that has become our default setting.

Many of us go through our lives with no awareness that we are in this default, unconscious, automated way of being. We don't know there are other ways to experience life, to react, to perceive things. That default setting or mindset is all we know.

It is like being in a hypnotic trance. The brain-body circuits fire in a repetitive way and it can feel like there is no other choice.

The only way out of this type of unconscious, 'un-self-aware' mindset is to:

  1. become aware that your brain-body has automated ways of perceiving every situation and that you're usually not conscious of this

  2. learn how these automated patterns (mindsets) were formed

  3. experiment with new types of actions and behaviors that help you perceive life and yourself in a new way

​​​​​​​This requires an 'aha moment' AND new action - an aha moment without action will just keep you going back to your old mindset and behaviors. I'll explain more about how important action and movement are in a future post.


Becoming Aware of our Mindset


We can only become more aware of our mindset by becoming more aware of our own patterns - how we react to things, the different states and moods we are in throughout the day. This means we must turn our attention towards ourselves, but this is where it gets tricky... This inward attention needs to be in the form of curiosity and 'scientific exploration', not judgment and not looking for how something is wrong.


A big part of how we turn this attention inward is to create intentional periods of time where we STOP focusing on:

  • others' behaviors

  • external stimuli that distracts us, such as screens, television, shopping, consuming things

  • the next project, activity, work-related task, to-do lists

One key way we can remove external stimulus and move our attention inward is by closing our eyes and staying still for about 15-20 minutes. Interestingly, something I have seen over the years in different types of research or treatment situations is that there’s something about closing our eyes that can cause people issues. In fact, I sometimes see that heart rate and a certain type of brainwave range associated with stress and anxiety actually go up when someone closes their eyes, compared to when their eyes are open. If your mind races and you feel uncomfortable, it means in a sense that you don’t feel ‘safe inside’ with your own thoughts or what might ‘happen’. I often see this with people who have past trauma or other painful emotional memories that they haven't resolved.

This is not something we can 'fix', but creating space for noticing the sensations in our body and allowing ourselves to just observe them without judging or trying to change them. Doing this is an important neural exercise.


Noticing our Brain Patterns

This steady, nonjudgmental, inward focus is what allows us to be more perceptive to patterns of what regulates or dysregulates us. It is a form of ‘pattern recognition training’. Our brains are built for that - the more data we collect and consciously notice, the better we get at recognizing patterns.*

In order to notice patterns, we have to sit still long enough with the ‘data’ that comes from our inward focus. What I see happen a lot is people either don’t even try sitting still to have that inward attention, or they try but they get distracted by storylines and ‘to do lists’. The practice of that kind of attention training takes time. We need to challenge our circuitry over and over again so that we can have more control over what it does. Many of us don’t feel like we have that kind of agency. Agency gets built through exposure and experience. We need to have experiences where we know we have exerted some form of control over our own mind and attention. The best way to experience this form of control is to have something you set ahead of time that you will focus on - and then steer your attention (which i also call the beam of awareness) towards that over and over again. No matter how many times your mind strays, every time you bring it back to that same point of focus, you have done something important: You have ignited neurochemical and kinetic activity that can begin to form a ‘memory’ of how to do it again. Every time you bring your focus back to that point, you are building up that memory, which will help you return to that state of steady awareness again. If closing your eyes doesn't work well for you, you can have your eyes softly focus in front of you. A candle or fire is an excellent way to slow those brainwaves because of the slow movement - just enough to keep your attention softly engaged. Another option is a fountain or humidifier, where you can see the water or mist. Just notice when your mind wanders and then bring it back. 15 to 20 minutes. And if you haven't caught on yet... I'm talking about meditation... If you don’t like the word meditation, or you want to explain it to someone who doesn’t want to hear about that kind of stuff, try ‘attentional neural training’ instead What is your experience when you stop, stay still? What happens to your internal state when you just sit still with your eyes closed (or open but not looking at anything in particular)? If you’re trying to create change in the world and you’re focused on the behaviors and actions of others, something that can be a healthy complement to this is to take time to go inward and notice your own patterns. Take time to hone your self-awareness.


Reflection

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*in some upcoming videos, I’ll also be explaining how this pattern recognition training can help us understand deeper connections between what is going on in our behaviors and how these might be driven by subconscious fears and beliefs that were formed a long time ago.


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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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