Understanding the Mind
Brain Bugs and Cognitive Distortions
If you were to go to the mirror and look at your skull (ignoring for now all those facial and hair details we usually fuss and fret over), from the top of your skull down to roughly your mouth line and from your right ear to your left, what you have inside there is the most complicated biological organism in the four billion year history of evolution and within the known universe.
The approximately 3.2 pound jello like blob that resides in that above described space operates 24/7 from your first breathe to your last on levels of such complexity and intricacy that despite enormous advances in its study over the past century by thousands upon thousands of neuroscientists, physicists, biochemists, mathematicians, and other advanced fields using some of the most cutting-edge scientific tools and study methods ever devised, not a single solitary one of them could say with any complete certainty precisely how it all works. This is not to say that some extraordinary advances in its understanding by spectacularly brilliant scientists have not been made - the brain is simply that fantastically complex.
It must deal with streams of incoming sensory information that would cripple the most advanced super computers on earth and it must do this seamlessly and largely below your awareness. It must take everything in the highly advanced skelotomuscular structure that is your body - which itself is a true engineering marvel - and coordinate hundreds of large and small muscle groups moving hundreds of bones to create all your physical movements. Ponder for a moment what is required for a concert level pianist to play complex Mozart compositions or for a major league batter to swing a piece of round wood and solidly meet a small round object traveling at over 90 mph. What is required for your brain to assemble what you experience as sight and sound and to coordinate them (a feat much more difficult and important to your daily function than you might imagine) is well, well beyond any form of artificial intelligence and requires incredibly complex cooperation between very different brain regions.
Of all species on earth and in its evolutionary history, there are no more complex social and cultural structures than that of humans. This too requires tremendously elaborate brain functioning as your senses feed streams and reams of data to various regions of your brain to make sense of the speech, body and facial language, scents and so on that are involved in the near endlessly intricate structures involved in short and long human interactions and to generate responses and strategies for navigating "you" through all of that. Furthermore, no other species is as aware of its own sense of self and its mental states and functioning as we homo sapiens and this too requires near unfathomably complex brain networks and systems.
Your brain can look back into past events throughout your life and imagine far into the future in ways no other species can. It can hold information that in computer storage terms would amount to millions of petabytes.
Your brain is capable of almost science fiction like abilities to self-heal and create new networking functions should damage occur.
However, despite all these wondrous capabilities, the human brain is filled with many "bugs". "Brain bugs" are the subject of study of many a neuroscientist or cognitive neuroscientist (the former being about the nuts and bolts of the brain, the latter being more how those nuts and bolts produce the mind, cognition, emotions, etc) and which the neuroscientist Dean Buonomano has neatly compiled and wonderfully narrated in his book Brain Bugs.
All brains have "brain bugs"; faulty reasoning, irrational or even delusional beliefs, unjustified fears, cognitive biases, poor thinking habits, are capable of producing false memories and so on. No exceptions. Yours, mine, the "batty" people from all over the political spectrum with whom you disagree, scientists, or anyone else you can think of - everyone. Almost all people are quite capable of being perfectly sound in their reasoning and judgment in one area and completely irrational and biased in another. In fact, one of the most common cognitive biases is that of an individual being convinced that everyone else is flawed with cognitive biases and faulty reasoning while they are not (trust me, there will be people reading along here nodding in recognition of what they can see in others around them but completely blind to it in themselves). On the other hand, an almost just as common cognitive bias is the belief that everyone else's brains are working fine and that ours is the only one that is flawed.
However, a broad understanding of all the bugs of the human brain and how those affect all you can see in the world around you is not our interest here today. If you are reading here it is quite likely that your brain is malfunctioning in ways that is producing some sort of short or long term mental state or mental difficulties or "moods" that fall somewhere under the umbrella of a "mental illness". For our purposes here today we need to understand how many of these "brain bugs" are affecting - or even creating - the mental states and moods that are driving us batty.
What is of essential importance from this introduction on general brain bugs is that you understand and accept that nearly all brains will contain flaws and bugs and not just yours. And this, dear readers, is where we employ some self-compassion and forgiveness. When we are in those dark places we can become convinced that we are the only one who is so terribly flawed. Furthermore, we can take to beating ourselves up very badly for these flaws.
One of the greatest accomplishments I wish to achieve with this blog is to remove judgment and stigma when looking to understand all human behaviour but most especially your behaviour or pernicious mental states. We must learn not to judge others nor ourselves. We must learn not to blame others or ourselves. We are all about understanding and learning here. We learn, we better understand, then we work at building something improved or better.
Now, let's delve into a better understanding of concepts such as cognitive biases, cognitive distortions and other "brain bugs". From there we'll move on to a better understanding of what may be going on in your mind and most importantly, what to do about it.
First off, let's look at the term "cognitive". Cognitive of course relates to "cognition" which:
is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses. It encompasses processes such as knowledge, attention, memory and working memory, judgment and evaluation, reasoning and "computation", problem solving and decision making, comprehension and production of knowledge.
Human cognition can be conscious or unconscious, concrete or abstract, as well as intuitive (like knowledge of a language, for example) and conceptual (like a model of a language). Cognitive processes use existing knowledge and generate new knowledge.
We generally separate cognitive processes from emotional processes but in fact they are more closely intertwined than most of us would like to believe. Which is not to say that they aren't separate processes in the brain and involve different brain regions and networks but each can or will influence the other. For our purposes here for now though, we'll think of "cognitive" as how we think and process things.
Now, for biases. Biases are prejudices in our ways of thinking about or evaluating things, concepts, groups or individual people - or, as we're going to look at today, even ourselves! Biases can be conscious or unconscious (though the great majority are of the latter). A cognitive bias therefor would be a line of cognitive reasoning based on prejudicial ideals, beliefs of all kinds (political and religious beliefs would top this list), perceptions and so on that create incorrect or faulty views or mental models as viewed against purely objective measures. They are defined as "tendencies to think in certain ways that lead to systematic deviation from standards of rationality and good judgment". Biased thinking will literally alter what we see and don't see, what we hear and don't hear, even what we feel and don't feel. You want to know what the biggest cognitive bias is? It's the belief that you don't have prejudicial biases or the belief that these don't affect your thinking, decision making and judgments. Trust me, this is all very deeply studied and endless tests have been devised and utilized to demonstrate hidden prejudices and biases in virtually all people's cognitive processeses. All human brains are capable of prejudiced or biased cognitive processes of one kind or another.
Furthermore, all brains will "filter" information based on these biases and prejudices. All brains will subconsciously filter out facts and information that do not support our values, views, theories and beliefs while allowing in information that supports our values, views, theories and beliefs, something known as "confirmation bias". And once again, there are very, very few exceptions to this, regardless how much you or anyone else swears they don't do this. It doesn't feel like we do this because of how deeply subconscious these processes are and how natural they work but all brains do this. Selective filtering and confirmation bias can be observed in all people and peoples, even in highly trained scientists.
There are many, many reasons for this. Firstly, we must go back to all the "data" your brain must process; sensory data, factual knowledge and information from what we are hearing or reading and almost endless so on. It is literally and simply not possible to process all this information, sifting through every bit of it for how verifiable it is, what's right or wrong, how pertinent it is, etc. All brains will create shortcuts for doing this. Some of these are good and rational shortcuts, consciously learning to objectively disregard what is not important or pertinent to the task at hand, for example, while many others are prejudiced and selectively biased rationale built in subconsciously over a lifetime without our realizing it. Mental shortcuts and selective biases are a necessary albeit often imperfect process.
How and where we're raised and taught will have an enormous influence, of course. We may be implicitly taught many prejudiced lines of thinking and judgment or we may have absorbed them from family, public figures and others of influence within the sphere of our lives as we grew up.
As well, in a fast paced world where we daily face such enormous amounts of incoming data which our brains must process and create decisions, reactions, judgments and so on (and these can range from the mundane such as which cheese to choose from a shelf of dozens of choices to whether or not to talk to the person standing next to you in the lineup to pay for that cheese to larger processes involved in jobs, careers, long term planning, etc) our brains tend to naturally default to the quick. We often admire someone who boldly makes "quick decisions" which we may then emulate. Often it may feel like we have no choice and have to make a split second decision. In a deeper way of understanding how brains work, all cognitive processes chew up valuable energy resources in the brain and deep subconscious brain mechanisms will often default your brain towards the quick decision - or cognitive shortcut - in order to conserve energy.
Lastly for now, pure objectivity is hard - really hard. It takes an enormous amount of training, knowledge and working closely with those who can accurately critique our ideas, processes and conclusions. It's a very difficult - and energy and time consuming - process. So our brain generally defaults to cognitive shortcuts and selective biases, often without our awareness and despite how conscientiously we may be trying to view or work things through objectively.
[Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman covers these basic premises in his renowned work Thinking Fast and Slow]
Now, again, we're not here to judge cognitive biases one way or the other and get into all kinds of thinking of how people on the other side of the political spectrum do this and your side doesn't or how this affects gender politics, or any of that. We're just here to understand that all brains will create cognitive biases. We're just here to establish as a matter of fact that in many ways brains can operate imperfectly in how they process information and form judgments and evaluations and make decisions based on cognitive biases and/or faulty reasoning. Certainly some groups are demonstrably worse than others but in truth all people and peoples are prone to one degree or another. What we need to understand for our purposes here today is that all brains are capable of being wrong - often spectacularly so - based on faulty or biased cognitive processes. Again, there are no exceptions to this.
Another term we often hear which is also very relevant here today is "cognitive dissonance". Cognitive dissonance is a deeply uncomfortable mental and emotional tension we feel when we are faced with information and/or facts or a situational dilemma that go against a deeply held view, position, value, theory or belief we have. The rather amusing thing (to me) is how many people believe other people suffer cognitive dissonance but they don't. They be all like, "oh, haha, look at that person in that group over there that I disagree with get all cognitive dissonant over these "facts" that I'm bombarding them with" yet somehow believe they are in some way immune to experiencing it or that there are not plenty of facts and information that would go against whatever cherished beliefs they have.
In truth, all brains are capable of both cognitive dissonance and denial of facts (the latter generally following the former) that don't fit our views and beliefs and furthermore for almost any belief or worldview or even most scientific theories, there will be facts and information that either don't support or which may even disprove them in whole or in part. You, me, people of all political and religious or atheist stripes, even highly trained scientists are capable of cognitive dissonance. Again, there are very few exceptions to this. It's just what brains do. It's sort of a bug and sort of isn't. It isn't in the sense that it's a perfectly natural and often necessary mental reaction and process to jump to the defense of what we deeply believe. It is a brain bug when it blocks further understanding, dialog or cooperation in resolving issues between opposite parties. It's also a bug when we are trying to better understand ourselves and to learn and grow.
All of this is to set the table for what we really must work on to understand better in ourselves and in understanding our mental health - cognitive distortions.
All mental illnesses will involve cognitive distortions or distorted thinking. All. There will be many reasons for them and they will take many different forms along a whole spectrum from mild to severe, but no matter the particular mental illness you are struggling with, it will involve cognitive distortions. Not only that, a great deal of your suffering will be on account of cognitive distortions.
What this means, I'm afraid to say, is that some of the things that your mind is doing, some of what it's telling you is not "real" but is a result of cognitive distortions. It could very well be, in fact, that your mental illness is largely created by cognitive distortions.
This is very, very uncomfortable territory for most people (see cognitive dissonance above). We are all very, very inclined to believe that whatever is going on in our brains and minds, that how we're perceiving the world around us and the people we must deal with, that our very thoughts are all "true", "real" and are hard "facts". It is extremely hard for us to believe and accept that many or all these things going on in our minds might be "distortions" or that distorted thinking may be leading our minds down the harmful path it's on.
To start to get past this, we must understand that when we are learning about cognitive distortions in our minds that it does NOT mean we are "crazy", "stupid" or anything like that. It simply means another form of "brain bug" like we've been looking at here today. All brains are capable of them in one form or another and most people will have cognitive distortions to one degree or another.
As I've also discussed at length in specific posts and here and there throughout this blog, "you" didn't put these thought processes there or deliberately "choose" them (nor did anyone else for that matter). All our thought processes are created by very complex brain regions and networks that developed over our lifetimes. Sometimes there are little brain differences that can create a distorted image of ourselves. In any case, what created them was a long complicated process that probably started early in life. "You" are not at fault for them being there or influencing your thought processes.
I have talked in the past about how I believe much of any given case of mental illness is greatly produced by our "conscious experience" - that which we are consciously experiencing. Cognitive processes of all kinds will play a part in producing what you are consciously experiencing and the fact is that some of those processes will be distorted.
Let's have a bit more of a look at them to see what they are.
A list and outline of fifteen most common cognitive distortions can be found here.
Let's take a few of what I think are the most important of those to recognize and understand and look at them more closely here.
Filtering is when our brains "filter" negative and positive aspects about our selves and/or our situations in life. It is one of the many ways our brains can form the kind of "selective biases" we looked at earlier in this piece. In cases of depression and anxiety, often what our brains are doing is filtering out positive aspects and "seeing" too much negative in our selves and in our lives. If our brains do this too much, it will create a distorted reality in quite a literal sense.
Polarized or Black and White Thinking
This is the tendency to see things at extreme ends, to see things in either "black" or "white", in either/or frameworks. It's either a success or a failure, beautiful or ugly, attractive or repulsive and so on. It is a tendency to not to be able to see things along a gradient or a spectrum, to not be able to see the many shades between black and white. Things go a little wrong and we "suck" or are "stupid". While perfectionist thinking is a bit of a different kettle of fish, it will play a role in this distorted form of thinking.
Jumping to Conclusions
Again, this relates back to what we were earlier looking at with how our brains tend to default to shortcuts or the quicker "decision" or "evaluation". It is common to almost all people's thinking processes. But in mental health problems it works in particular ways that are more harmful to us. Someone may express anger with us and we'll automatically jump to conclusions about the reasons and implications of this. A little thing goes wrong and we'll jump to the conclusion that this is proof of our "stupidity". Or even jumping to the conclusion that a glance our way is full of threatening meaning.
This refers to a tendency to see some sort of catastrophe around every corner or creating catastrophes out of mistakes or events that may in fact be quite manageable or perhaps are even not all that significant. Or we might project a short term (and real) catastrophe into our entire future ("I screwed up and got fired! My whole life is over!"). Colloquially, this is often referred to as "making mountains out of molehills" (something we really hate to be told).
A few not on the list at the above link but which I have observed in my own thinking and that of nearly everyone whose cases I've heard and have worked with are "predicting the future" and "making assumptions".
Predicting the future
A cognitive error that is almost sure to create massive anxiety and depressed mental states is "predicting the future" or "predicting outcomes"; taking the past or the present and projecting a dark future or future outcome based on those. This is a very easy mental trap to fall into because our human brains are very "wired" to have strong predictive functions.
This is another very common cognitive trap which can take many forms. Almost all people are guilty of the habit of making assumptions. In those with anxiety and depression, these generally take the form of "assume the worst" and can greatly impact mental health and decision making. It's another brain bug "shortcut" that may be necessary at times but which can become a habit that will greatly affect mental states and our entire way of thinking and decision making.
There are several other common cognitive distortions or unhealthy thinking habits and I'll have to encourage you to begin looking into them and understanding them on your own or through other means (I'll give some suggestions below). But I need to get a few things straight first.
Nobody likes being accused of these things. And many of our friends and family will do just that. These accusations will absolutely feel hurtful. Not brought up or handled properly, having people throw these in your face will bring up instinctive defenses and make it even harder for us to see them, all of which is simply going to make matters worse in the short and long term.
Two, again nobody willfully creates these in their minds and mental processes. Nobody. Where do they come from? It could be many places. There could be an inherited aspect that affects different brain regions and how they process information and create mental models, processes and inner dialog. It could be our upbringing and family influences. They could very well be the result of very real things that have gone wrong in your life - real tragic events, real trauma and so on.
And to repeat, none of this means you are "stupid", an "idiot" and other things we beat ourselves up with. This is another pattern we may fall into; on some level we may know our thinking and decision making isn't "right", we repeat past mistakes, get angry with ourselves and then beat ourselves up for being so "stupid" or "such an idiot". It certainly feels that way, but in fact you are a perfectly normal human being struggling with various "brain bugs" that virtually all people have. You certainly are your unique "you" with your very own unique life and set of problems but you are not A Particularly Bad Person for having this buggy brain of yours. All brains are like this to one degree or another.
Another critical thing to understand here is that nobody - certainly not me - can say that what you are experiencing in your mind is not real. Your subjective experience absolutely is real. The anxiety you feel is real, the dark destructive thoughts are real, all of it. So please don't think that when we discuss things like cognitive distortions that we are saying what you are experiencing is not real. It is. Trust me, I know this from personal experience and the study of cognitive neuroscience.
What can happen is a vicious cycle like this:
Real events or life situations impact mental states and thinking, thinking becomes stressed and distorted, stressed distorted thinking further impacts mental states, mental states then begin influencing thought and other cognitive processes, these thought and cognitive processes affect our lives in negative ways, these further impact mental states and so on and so on. As all of this becomes more entrenched, it all feels more and more like our reality.
In any mental health crisis or chronic case, stress is going to play a major role. Some stress we are aware of - probably excessively aware of it (major anxiety, panic attacks, etc over things in our lives) - much of it is below our conscious awareness. Chronic and/or acute stress will affect our thinking, mental states and mental models.
Okay, now what to do.
What we have to first get past is any notion of blame - the blaming of others or ourselves. It serves no practical purpose and will invariably make things worse. I view the tendency to blame and judge a cognitive error in itself.
We begin then with working on self-compassion and forgiveness. This is not easy for many of you but it is a necessary step. It is a necessary daily step. That is to say, it must become habit.
In any kind of self-work, recognition and acceptance is very important. In the case of cognitive distortions, recognizing and accepting that a good deal of our thinking processes could be distorted and further adding to our anxiety or dark depression is a huge - and brave - step.
Next, we're going to look at this term of psychology "cognitive distortions" a little differently. In my study of neuroscience and mental health disorders, I quickly recognized that "we" don't create these mental patterns nor are they easy to stop just because we read about them or are told about them. Our brains create these patterns, which is why I include them under the general heading of "brain bugs". So we're going to call them "cognitive habits" instead and think of them simply as habits that are not serving us well and that have to be changed over time and replaced by different habits.
In almost any case of mental illness there are going to be real events, real trauma and real threats that are impacting our mental states and there are going to be cognitive distortions.
What our job is then is to start the process of learning to sort through what's real in the outside objective sense and what's distorted thinking.
This can be very, very difficult to do alone. It can be very hard to understand our own minds. It can be very hard to learn how to take an objective outside perspective of our minds and lives. A primary purpose of this blog is to help you in this process, to give you the best grounding and tools I can, but often it is very useful if you can find outside help with a skilled therapist or group therapy (I was quite blessed in this sense).
Saving that, what we can start working on is creating better mental habits. This was the very purpose of creating my Positive Difference Making Fundamentals. This is one of my most widely read posts and has been recognized by those in fields of mental health and improving the mind as universally positive steps in building a better mind, building improved inner peace and better long term mental health.
We will not change our long term mental health overnight (though there are times it can feel like we do). In our worst states it will feel like we can do absolutely nothing to change anything.
I created that list of fundamentals with the express purpose of giving us little things we can "chip away" at daily no matter how bad we're feeling. Can't do this one on a particular day? Then try this other one. Can't do that one? Then try this one here. You'll find that there is always something you can do on a particular day, no matter how bad it is.
A key thing I discovered while studying cognitive neuroscience was that it was not always necessary for us to "break a bad habit". Often just beginning to work on new mental habits is enough. This is a big part of what my Positive Difference Making Fundamentals are all about.
The most valuable post for working on what we learned here today is Mindfulness Meditation Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. I strongly encourage you to read through that post for a deeper understanding of what we looked at here today and to begin learning a very powerful tool to begin implementing into a daily habit.
I built my whole concept of Brain Training Exercises as a simple, easy and fun way to work on our inner dialog and mental habits. On those days when it feels you've got absolutely nothing, we can do these. Simple but very powerful over the long run.
And no matter what, there are almost no days when we cannot listen to music. This is why Music Therapy is so great. We have to be careful about the music we choose to build our music therapy program, but even in our very most exhausted, worn out and fed up states we can listen to music. Music has amazing (and now very solidly scientifically proven) healing powers.
The absolute most powerful and necessary habit we must cultivate, however, is that we must learn to stay and work within the present day. Not the past, not the future, but the present day only. Of all the Positive Difference Making Fundamentals, this is the oldest (it has been found in texts thousands of years old) and the most universal (the understanding of this mental health principle has been found in virtually every culture around the globe).
A final reminder and a final take-away for today, dear reader, are these:
While you are your unique you, you are not alone in this, you are not the only one to have a brain that is "buggy". So please stop beating yourself up about that and practice some self-compassion. Yes, I know how "corny" this sounds but it really is a necessary step. And yes, I know how hard this step is.
I truly and deeply know how hard all of this is. I really and truly do. I know how much this feels that this is "just the way you are" and how helpless it all makes you feel. But you do not have to be this way. This does not have to be your life, your future. As buggy as brains can be, all brains can change. Thus your brain can change and thus your life can change.
You can change, it can change.
Yes you can.
Thank you as always for reading.
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