Thinking about the power of thought?
There’s a mental conundrum if ever there was one.
I often find myself contemplating my ability to bend spoons and assorted objects.
Aside from becoming a psychic strongman, to a large extent, we are what we think, our mental gymnastics contributing significantly to our quality of life and wellbeing.
So, how can we harness the slippery thought rascals for our own benefit?
What is thought?
Thought remains poorly understood by the scientific community, as does consciousness as a whole.
It seems that such executive functioning must have evolved as a survival and reproduction mechanism through the ages.
What’s for certain is that thought helps to balance our baser primordial reactions with considered responses.
This can be helpful in both analysing the past and imagining an unmet future, thereby altering our behaviour in the present to favour optimal outcomes.
However, the actual what of thoughts and their role in consciousness is still up for debate.
Yuval Noah Harare posits that consciousness could be runoff from our subconscious processes, largely mental pollution.
But from our personal experience, it frequently appears that they play a more significant role.
There’s a popular media myth that humans have around 60-80,000 thoughts per day, despite there being no specific source, the number seemingly pulled from the Internet candyland of invented statistics.
Daniel Kahneman, famed psychologist/economist, believes there are approximately 600,000 psychological presents/moments (3-second windows between past and future) per month, equating to the potential for around 20k thoughts opportunities per day.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, humans think a lot.
You just have to observe your own mind for a few minutes to realise this. And if you do, it’s not long before you discover that many thoughts are fearful little critters.
Either we’re fretting about something we said in the dim and distant past or anxious about an upcoming social event we’d rather skip.
Seldom do we embrace the Zen of the present.
The fallout of such thought onslaught is that, strung together, our mental processes start to colour our emotions.
That’s to say, if we think a bunch of negative thoughts, we’re likely to feel depressed.
How peachy do you think your life will be if you’re afflicted by constant negative thought and emotion? Exactly. That’s not to say that morose thought in itself is bad, but rather, if we don’t gain sufficient perspective, the results can be devastating.
From this outlook, the power of thought in shaping our lives is unquestionable.
People suffering from depression experience recursive rumination in which negative thoughts assail them from every angle.
In contrast, although happiness isn’t an endless stream of wondrous, fluffy thoughts, it’s a state of mind correlated with greater positive thinking.
For years psychological research centred on the pathology symptoms suffered by those with mental health issues, like anxiety and depression.
However, in recent years, there’s been a significant shift the other way, with the positive psychology movement gaining ground with pioneers such as Martin Seligman.
One of my favourite books on the subject is The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, which discusses some fascinating research on how we can harness our thoughts to improve our psychological disposition.
If we want to see the power of thought in action, we need look no further than the placebo effect, whereby patients who expect certain effects from treatment are more likely to experience this very effect.
The opposite has also been demonstrated, with those imagining negative symptoms and side effects statistically more prone to encountering them, even to the point of death!
How does it work?
Research points towards expectations as being a primary factor in shaping the power of thought.
On a neurochemical level, there’s not much difference between expecting or imagining a certain event than when that situation actually occurs.
After all, our imagination fires and wires the same neurons that would otherwise be active in real life.
This is possibly why visualisation has been shown to be a successful technique.
Research suggests that when top athletes visualise successful pre-game routines they actually perform better during competition.
The visualisation has almost pre-conditioned their nervous system for game-time.
This has likely contributed to the belief in the law of attraction and more fanciful claims that our thoughts manipulate the universe into attracting everything we want.
Although such assertions aren’t supported by science, what has been shown is that optimistic people experience greater luck in life.
This is because they’re more adept at spotting patterns and opportunities in their environment.
Negative people, in contrast, overlook such openings.
This is largely due to our brain state during these mental periods.
Positive thinking leads to relaxed, expansive, creative minds, more proficient at spotting growth opportunities.
Negative thinking tends to tap into prehistoric fight or flight instincts, more concerned with survival than flourishing.
As a result, lucky breaks are more likely to be missed or discounted entirely.
How to harness the power of thought
Meditation is a technique which appreciates the power of thoughts and in particular, their potential negative effect when left unchecked.
You see, most of us live in our own little worlds, consumed by the stories we tell ourselves, good or bad.
Meditation teaches us to step back from the storyline and observe our thoughts as they rise and fall away, resulting in a more examined existence.
Meditation doesn’t (at least in mindfulness) try to change thought but rather, break its spell and make us realise on an instinctive level, that our thoughts don’t define us.
With practice and this realisation in hand, we can see through our mental self-talk and imagery.
Rather than dismissing them, when we learn this basic premise, we can begin to use thoughts as tools to create a better life, rather than being their slaves.
We’ve already talked about the power of visualisation in improving aspects of performance, with dancers shown to have increased their jumping height and people improving their muscle mass simply by imagining attending the gym.
This is because the amygdala, responsible for our fight or flight response, is unable to tell the difference between an imagined and real event.
While much of meditation is centred on remaining impartial to thought, the exception would be loving-kindness meditation, also known as metta, in which good vibes are actively cultivated.
In this way, imagination can be a powerful ally when used as a tool.
Simply taking time in the morning or evening to complete imagination or visualisation exercises can help reprogram your tendency to dwell on negative events.
You might choose to imagination happiness within yourself and others, as in the metta meditation or visualise yourself achieving certain ambitions and goals to instil a more positive mindset.
The Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece had a technique called reframing that’s still in use today through the discipline of modern cognitive behavioural therapy.
If you habitually perceive your life in a negative light, that worldview is invariably accompanied by a slew of negative thinking.
Reframing challenges the validity of such assumptions by encouraging us to question our thoughts and see if there’s any substance behind them.
Often the negativity we imbue on events isn’t grounded in truth but is instead mind-made.
When this tendency becomes evident through self-analysis, we can change the storyline to create a more positive reflection of events.
Reframing doesn’t just say, “stop being a miserable bastard” and “think happy”.
Rather, it converts existing thoughts into something more palatable through rational enquiry.
This might take some practice, but after using meditation to realise the illusory nature of thought, it’s not a great leap to re-engineer our thoughts for positive gain.
If you’re stuck in repetitive and unhelpful patterns of thought, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to understand the mechanics of your mind.
After all, harnessing the power of thought is fundamental in crafting a good life.
Using the aforementioned techniques, not only can we experience profound internal shifts but also evolve our external relationships.
Only by mastering our inner world can we successfully navigate our outer world and embody the change we envision.