On Healing 6/27/2005: If the brain had a better filter, we’d all be happier

After 30 years of studying the human mind, I think I finally understand how it works – and how it doesn’t.

The mind is like a kidney.

Every day the kidneys receive about 200 quarts of blood and automatically decide what’s nutritious and what can become just urine.

Every day the mind receives billions of messages – sensory stimulation, reflections on the past, hopes for the future, reactions to emotions, etc. The problem is, the mind doesn’t decide very well which thoughts are nutritious and which represent waste material. Whereas kidneys filter out about 1 percent of the blood, the mind should probably spike about 90 percent of its thoughts!

But because of our fundamental belief that we are the center of our universe, we believe that everything that goes through our minds is valuable. So while watching television, the thought may arise that “I haven’t spoken to my mother in a week. I’ll bet she’s angry at me.” With no filter, that thought spirals to “I hate when she gets angry at me. All she does is try to make me feel guilty. I’ll be darned if I will call her tonight.”

Or, on occasion you look in the mirror in the morning and the mind says: “You look awful today, that double chocolate cake you had for dinner has added five pounds. You have bags under your eyes the size of luggage.” Without a functioning filter, you assume this is true so you are self-conscious about your appearance when you get to work. When your colleague greets you and looks away quickly, this only validates your perception that you look terrible and you are even more embarrassed!

This mental activity can ruin a day, interfere with sleep, and greatly diminish our chances of being happy. And all of it belongs in our psychic bladder.

Most humans I have met have a voice inside their head that is always assessing their looks or performance. Not a literal voice, like a hallucination, but a constant stream of self-assessment. Many refer to this voice as the “judge” who never finds us “not guilty”! Some might refer to this as our conscience or superego, but the “judge” is different. There is a quality in this jurist that tells us if we beat ourselves up enough, we will be better people.

Now here is the problem: Most treat this “judge” as the voice of ultimate truth. But the real truth is the problem with our psychological filters. I honestly believe that if it were not for the “judge,” my colleagues and I would be looking for different jobs!

Many of us err by either taking the inner voice literally or running to stay one step ahead of the criticism. As with most psychological problems, the healing is in the relationship.

In Yann Martels’ Life of Pi, a young boy finds himself on a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger in the middle of the Indian Ocean. He knows he cannot kill this tiger, but the tiger could kill him. The tiger cannot be controlled, and Pi has nowhere to hide. He also must share his meager supplies with the tiger because he doesn’t particularly want to share a lifeboat with a hungry cat.

This is the nature of being human. We float on this unpredictable ocean called life beset by internal tigers.

The truth is, our judges are neither keepers of the truth nor Bengal tigers. Our judges are simply internal voices that may be longing for attention. Perhaps it is the part of you that feels anxious and insecure. There is really no need to run or even react, just listen and then filter. Please remember to filter.

By the way, when Pi finally lands on a beach near a forest, the tiger runs away. And Pi cries. He’s lost his companion.

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