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Change Your Mind Then Sleep On It

Updated: May 31, 2021

The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.

Welcome back. If you’re just joining us for Down the Rabbit Hole, for the past three weeks we’ve been exploring themes from Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed, a memoir about being freed from the proverbial cage of domestication, to live a truer and more beautiful reality. In the book, Doyle offers four keys to unlock the cage. So far, we’ve covered Feel It All and Be Still And Know. This week we’re going to consider the third: Dare to Imagine.

While describing the third key to her untaming, Doyle describes her faith in an unseen order. According to this chapter, she believes there is order to the world, split into the seen and unseen. The seen order consists of the things we can observe, or more simply put, reality. The unseen order is described as one’s concept of an ideal world, an inwardly imagined eutopia. She maintains that the unseen order can materialize, crossing over into the seen, when we dare to imagine the truest, most beautiful world. This is perhaps another take on the mantra “If you can name it you can tame it” idea we discussed in Untamed episode 2 of our podcast. This concept of mind over matter is pretty common, so let’s dig in and consider why that is.

Last week in This Story Is Eerily Familiar I introduced the concept of cognitive heuristics, mental shortcuts that form most of our decisions, a mishmash of personal experience and bias. One predominant cognitive bias relied upon in the self-help industry is the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. It occurs when something you have just noticed suddenly seems to be everywhere. At first it seems like a coincidence, then a sign, maybe even progressing to divine intervention. It’s a form of selection bias; your mind primed to notice the novel thing. For example, after I bought my first car, I suddenly saw the same make and model everywhere I went, even though I hadn’t noticed it before. This phenomenon has a hand in convincing people that there is a greater order to things, and their fate is guided by a series of signs. Tag on the fact that the human brain is wired to find patterns and create cohesive stories about whatever we observe, and it is easy to understand why many people believe that everything happens for a reason.

You might think that we’re about to embark on the thorny and deeply personal subject of belief in a higher power, but we are not. Instead, I’m going to ask a different but similar question: Do our thoughts happen for a reason?

I just said that the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon primes your mind. What does that mean? Priming is an interesting and surprising bias. Priming occurs when exposure to one stimulus influences the response to a subsequent one. For example, a group of people shown a list of slow animals like tortoise or snail would be primed to move slowly compared to a group shown neutral words. Similarly, a list of fast animals would prime the group to be faster. It seems crazy, but it’s true. Advertisers use priming to sell products. We even use it on ourselves. It’s one of the reasons that negative self-talk makes you feel worse and positive talk makes you feel better.

It makes me wonder if I should prime myself with productivity cues instead of thinking about all the distractions around me. Hmm.

Priming is easily measurable in a lab and is therefore well studied. Priming automatically fires up clusters of neurons, recalling associations between what you’re experiencing and long-term memories. These associations are not always obvious, because the brain lays down some of these connections when you’re not even looking—namely, while you sleep.

Image by Илья Мельниченко on Upsplash

Despite the perceived inaction of sleep, your brain is busy while your body rests. There are five stages of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and four near REM (NREM) or deep sleep stages. While you are out cold, short term memories are stored in long-term memory and individual memories are strengthened. Some real magic happens when you enter REM, and not just because you’re dreaming. Your brain makes novel and abstract connections between seemingly unrelated information, looking through the wealth of past experience, and seeing links our waking brain did not. This dream sleep helps take learning to the next level, namely to comprehension. Because the fight or flight system rests during sleep, dreams allow us to process memories and emotions in the absence of stress. It increases creativity, problem solving, and helps us navigate the social landscape. That all sounds immensely worthwhile, and yet so many of us have trouble choosing sleep over crossing one more thing off the To Do list. Or more embarrassingly, over-watching a binge worthy show.

I get it. Choosing to sleep in our culture looks bad. It can feel like your lazy, sleeping body is ruining your reputation as a productive, invincible supermartyr that dedicates every possible minute to getting things done. While problem solving, creativity, and social comprehension sound good, it’s still hard to spend a full third of our time snoozing. Instead, many shave-off a couple hours a night, compromising need for sleep with need to produce. Best of both worlds, right? What’s the harm? Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, pops that bubble. Missing the last two hours of sleep can mean missing out on 60-80% of REM sleep! So much for compromise. On the upside, maybe those extra hours sleeping will shorten daytime tasks, such as problem solving. Or reduce anxiety, leading to better focus. It is a distinct possibility. In fact, I put it to the test.

After writing last week’s blog This Story Is Eerily Familiar, I started going to bed on time and practicing guided meditation. After two full night’s sleep, I was productive, cheerful, and relaxed. Turns out, the sleep scientists were right. Go figure.

Sleep is a pillar of health. Yet, getting sufficient sleep isn’t a choice for some people. Sleep quality and availability is impacted by several factors, including shift work, health, multiple jobs, stress, trauma, and housing security. The way our culture perceives sleep needs to move away being associated with laziness and toward being recognized as a human right. Imagine a world where every individual was able to fulfill this basic, human need. It sounds like a dream come true. Now hold onto that thought, because imagining a truer, more beautiful world is going to come up again.

Let’s get back to our sneaky brains. Dreams create novel and abstract connections between our daytime memories and long-term memories. The Hebbian learning rule tells us neurons that fire together wire together. In other words, brain cells that are activated at the same time get connected, and the more this happens, the stronger the connection becomes. Neglected connections eventually weaken and are pruned. These abstract connections made in dreams means that the effects of priming are not always predictable. In a way, dreams take our waking experience and analyze it secretly. The results of which are revealed through intuitive action and biases.

One stimulus, say the word tortoise, causes the connected brain cells to fire automatic memory associations, such as the word slow. Sometimes these connections are obvious, and sometimes they are seemingly arbitrary products of the abstract ideas learnt while asleep. The connections aren’t merely in the mind—they affect our body as well. Think Pavlov's dog, but more subtle. Do these covert associations mean we are not masters of our own minds? To the contrary. It offers a powerful insight into how the mind works and offers hints on how to change our world.

The influence of priming and dream-made associations supports the idea of continuous learning. Our brains are primed to find patterns and learn. If we are constantly consuming content that for all intents and purposes is the same, those patterns become ever more ingrained. If we find ourselves wishing the world were a better place, what better way to change the world than to change our own minds? This means making more deliberate choices in what we read and what we see. If we want to change how our mind defines normal, it makes sense that we need to change what it regularly sees. In good Baader-Meinfoff fashion, this supports my previously expressed belief that the stories we consume affect how we see the world and interact with it.

This brings us back to imagining a better world. Doyle tells her readers they can bring forth the life that they imagine on the inside, and they must forge it if they want it to be. I do not agree with everything she says in this chapter, but I do believe this. When we give our attention to something, our brains prioritize that. The neural connections strengthen. The more time and thought spent on it, the more it will be incorporated into our mind’s definition of normal. Our intuitive responses and biases can change. And as they change, we will notice things we didn’t before. That change does not remain internal, because culture is built from the expectations and biases of all those in it. By bettering ourselves we can hope to influence others to be their best selves. Just like I’m hoping these words will inspire you to consider how your thoughts can change the world.

This whole line of thinking brought to mind the famous Mahatma Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Well, turns out that is not the actual quote. The actual quote says so much more. It is this:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

Words can change us. That is what this blog series is all about. The books I read sometimes open my mind to new ways of thinking. In sharing those thoughts, the shape of the world around me comes into sharper view, and I can see the change I want for the world.

What change do you imagine for the world? How do you nurture your desire for change? What authors or books are helping pave the way? Comment below, email us, or connect through the Book Interrupted Book Club Facebook group!

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