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Mindful Neuroscience: How to Build an Adaptive Mindset

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

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

What's the difference between 'normal' and 'natural' behavior?

As children, we don’t get to choose what our environment is or what kind of system we are a part of. Since we don’t get to choose, we must adapt. That’s part of our nature as complex adaptive systems. Plasticity and adaptability are our nature.

Learning and memory are also part of our nature. We need a certain degree of retention and mastery over our movements and behaviors in order for us to

1) not get overwhelmed by needing to constantly learn things as though they never happened before and

2) add to the complexity using the building blocks of what we’ve mastered. Think of how we learn to move when we’re infants. We can’t run until we can stand.

To help us form these building blocks within our first environment, there is a sort of ‘mastery’ of behaviors, movements, reactions, predictive algorithms, and thought patterns that make sense according to what is most predictable within that system.

By mastering those particular behaviors, movements, reactions, predictive algorithms, and thought patterns, we adapt to our environment and make it manageable for us to navigate.

Within this powerful process of holding onto our past to help us navigate our future, however, there is also a risk that those same behaviors and patterns may not be as helpful to us as we expand out of that system and enter a much more complex world.

What can be ‘adaptive’ in one environment is not necessarily adaptive in another.

True adaptation - in its most human and sophisticated form - reveals the difference between 'normal' and 'natural'. Something is adaptive if it gets updated according to new data, new scenarios and it’s able to do that all the time.

What I have seen in my own journey and in those of clients is there are a lot of reactions and behaviors that were formed when they were little to adapt to the relational dynamics of their first environment. And because we are around those same people so often as our brains are developing, those patterns become mastered to a point where

1) The person isn’t even aware they have these past-based reactions

2) It’s difficult to do anything else because there is no awareness of it

3) Even where there is awareness, the past patterns are so embedded that the neural and behavioral resources needed to update these models are so ‘expensive’ and unfamiliar that it physiologically feels easier to remain in old patterns.

Updating and Adapting

To be truly adaptive (which is part of our nature as complex adaptive systems), we must UPDATE. To have the most updated data and information, we must stay as open and receptive to it as possible.

This is not an easy thing, but it is simple. If you find yourself having similar reactions and things happening in your life, the way out of this loop is to do everything you can to become as receptive to present-moment data as often as you can. You need to be able to update the perception of yourself and the situation without it being distorted by the filter of your past.

There are deeper layers that are part of a bigger process in all of this (which I'll be gradually covering in upcoming videos and articles).

But to start...

Training Attentional Circuits

We need to train our ‘attentional circuits’ to become stronger so they can help us not get pulled into the hypnosis of our over-thinking mind and the ruminating trance that can overtake us and pull us away from life.

I’ve found three key things that have helped me with this:

1) Recognize that the past filters EVERYTHING I think, perceive, touch, taste, smell, feel, hear. As I look at a cup of coffee, for example, I recognize that my experience of that cup is informed and predicted by my past. I can only know how to pick it up without overexerting or under-exerting pressure because I’ve held a cup before. I only associate it with warmth and feeling like the day is beginning because I have had a past experience with it. I try to acknowledge this principle with various things throughout the week - looking at my hand, the street I walk down, a plant, a bookshelf, etc.

2) Try to experience as many moments as possible throughout the day where I stop to notice that I’m adding a narrative (words, labels, storylines, analyzing past or future situations) and then look around me, feel the sensations of my body, become aware of whatever is entering my senses without labeling or using words. Just feeling and imagining myself as a receiver of signals, waves, and frequencies.

3) Notice one of the following at any given moment:

BREATH: what your breath feels like as your stomach or chest rise and fall and/or how the air feels as it moves through your throat or nose

EYES: Notice how fast they are flitting about. Allow them to land on something and move more slowly (more on oculomotor movement & processing in a short video this Saturday!*) If I'm able to, I'll close my eyes in order to focus on one of my other senses for a few moments.

EARS: Can you notice the gaps in between the sounds you hear? Is there anything that is steady or still you can focus your hearing on?

BODY: Can you slow down or even stop moving for a moment? Try it and see what it does to your attention.

HANDS: Are they doing something they habitually do? Try stretching them out, clenching then releasing, and allowing them to feel relaxed.

Increasing the number of moments each day we pay attention to what is actually occurring NOW, as 'live data', trains our mind-brain-body circuitry to update, update, update. This is a powerful way to train ourselves out of repetitive, ruminating, past-oriented mental noise that clouds our minds.

What is something that engages you into the present moment and pulls you away from being lost in your own thoughts?


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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