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On our ability to know how we think and change how we think

We can't change how others think. "The only book that can actually teach you how to change how others think is a lobotomy manual," wrote Bennett and Bennett.

So why would we be able to control how we ourselves think?

"You are the one who decides," wrote Anthony Robbins, "how to feel and act based upon the ways you choose to perceive your life. Nothing has any meaning except the meaning we give it. Most of us have turned this process of interpretation on automatic, but we can take that power back and immediately change our experience of the world. * * * You can run your brain as skillfully as Spielberg or Scorsese runs his set."

I think that this is not true. Probably we cannot run our brains as a director runs a stage performance.

And yet, we can surely influence how we think. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi made a more qualified statement. Because we can only absorb a finite amount of information, "the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and the quality of life."

Clare Sestanovich observed that we all ask similar questions "on the brink of adulthood. Which facts should you resign yourself to? Which dreams should you devote yourself to? The liminal state of late adolescence (or at least a certain privileged one) can seem like a kind of lucid dream, a world of boundless potential, in which all you have to do is choose what happens next. It will end whenever you find an answer: which world do you want to wake up in?"

Part of what we need to do is build awareness of what other poeple are trying to cause us to believe. Advertising, as well as political communication, is based on persuasion. Rick Alan said that ordinary people need to "learn the tricks of the trade. The basic building blocks of persuasion techniques. For example, Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, which identifies the consistent themes used in advertising and in destructive cults to persuade people and influence them and bring them in. And then Edgar Schein of MIT wrote the book Coercive Persuasion, which is quite good. And then there’s the seminal work by Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Lifton studied North Korean POW camps and how the North Koreans were able to break down their prisoners and basically co-op their critical thinking and create a kind of mindset that they crafted through coercive persuasion. I think if we understand the tricks of the trade and I have a chapter on that in my book [Cults Inside Out] that I call “Cult Brainwashing” because that’s the term that’s used so often."

Neel Burton: “Cognitive distortion involves interpreting events and situations so that they conform to and reinforce our outlook or frame of mind, typically on the basis of very scant or partial evidence, or even no evidence at all. … This is similar to confirmation bias, but much more pronounced and pathological. … A cognitive distortion can open up a vicious circle: the cognitive distortion aliments the depression, which in turn aliments the cognitive distortion.”

Gustav Kuhn, a magician and a teacher of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, said magicians try to "find" and "exploit" our "loopholes in cognition." Magic "allows us to experience the impossible — and by doing so, it creates a conflict between the things that we think are possible and our actual experience." He and his colleagues "want to build a science of magic," according to Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. She explained: "One reason magic is so well-suited to explore human cognition and perception comes down to one of the weirder facts of being human: Every experience we have in the world — everything we can see and hear and taste and feel, and everything we remember about it afterward — is in some ways virtual. Our perception is created in the cognitive interpretation, how we sort through crowded fields of data to understand what’s happening to us." She also quoted Peter Lamont: "Magic is not simply something that happens in the brain, it’s something that happens between people, it’s learned from people interacting with each other." And she quoted Will Houstoun: “Each magic trick is sort of an experiment to see if you can use some form of applied psychology in concert with other things to see if people are deceived."

The novelist Roseanna White: "How could something that touched only one part affect her whole body? Her feet felt the prickles of a thousand needles that coursed like spears up her legs." Oliver Sacks said "there is increasing evidence from neuroscience for the extraordinary rich interconnectedness and interactions of the sensory areas of the brain, and the difficulty, therefore, of saying that anything is purely visual or purely auditory, or purely anything." Brian Boyd said: ”Recent neuroscience research in grounded cognition shows that thought is not primarily linguistic, as many had supposed, but multimodal, partially reactivating relevant multimodal experiences in our past, involving multiple senses, emotions, and associations. Just as seeing someone grasp something activates mirror neurons, even hearing the word grasp activates the appropriate area of the motor cortex. Our brains encode multimodal memories of objects and actions, and these are partially reactivated as percepts or concepts come into consciousness.”

We can be aware of how our brains may have changed over out lives. Alan Downs said that, for people "who have experienced significant psychological trauma, the hippocampal region in the brain has as much as twelve percent less volume than those who have not experienced such trauma." In evolutionary time, the human brain grew in size, something that "occurred before it is believed that we needed it," Gregg Braden wrote. If so: perhaps our brain grew in a manner that allows it to fill itself with thoughts that are incorrect or not particularly useful?

And maybe our brains grew to examine themselves? The mind's "chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature," Ambrose Bierce wrote in the Devil's Dictionary, observing the apparent "futility of the attempt." Patricia Churchland: “So it is that the brain investigates the brain, theorizing about what brains do when they theorize, finding out what brains do when they find out, and being changed forever by the knowledge.”


Michael I. Bennett, MD and Sarah Bennett. F*ck Feelings: One shrink’s practical advice for managing all life’s impossible problems. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. p. 3.

Anthony Robbins. Unlimited Power. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1986. pp. 9-11.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990). Harper Perennial Modern Classics. p. 30.

“The Unreality of Coming of Age.” Clare Sestanovich. Lit Hub. August 21, 2017.

Alex Kantrowitz. “Cult Deprogrammer Rick Alan Ross on NXIVM, QAnon, and What Makes Us Vulnerable.” OneZero. December 23, 2020.

Neel Burton. Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking. Acheron, 2019.

“What magic can teach us about our brains,” Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, Ideas in the Sunday Boston Globe, Sept. 2, 2016.

Roseanna M. White. Jewel of Persia. WhiteFire Publishing, 2010.

Oliver Sacks, quoted in Lisa Zunshine. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006, revised March 2012. (Kindle Edition.)

Brian Boyd, ”The Psychologist" The American Scholar, Autumn 2011. p. 51.

Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. (Second Edition) Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2012.

Gregg Braden. Deep Truth: Igniting the Memory of Our Origin, History, Destiny, and Fate. Hay House, 2011.

Ambrose Bierce. "Mind." The Devil's Dictionary.

Patricia Smith Churchland. Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain. (Cambridge, MA: MIT PRess, 1995), p. 482. First published in 1986. Quoted in Victor J. Stenger. The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2009. p. 177.


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