Developing Mental Control Over Psychological Symptoms

Learning mental control is going to take quite a few blogs – so that you fully understand it and how to achieve it. I cannot get everything written in one posting, so stick with it.

Just to humour me – I’d like you to do a little exercise:

Put both your hands flat on a table and then just lift up the index finger of your dominant hand while you keep all your other fingers flat on the table. Now, stop lifting up that finger and place it flat again. Then lift up that same finger one more time, and then stop lifting it and place it flat again.

What you have been doing could be described as a ‘body’ behaviour. That is, your body is doing a voluntary activity that you are instructing it to do. You’ll notice that (unless you have an injury or a disability) you have very close to 100% control over this activity. That is – you can move your finger or you can stop moving your finger at will and with precision.

This is actually no different to the level of control we can exercise in a ‘brain’ behaviour. All psychological phenomena – that is, thoughts, mental imagery and memories are all just behaviours of the brain. They are simply the material ‘output’ from a physical brain process that is occuring (see other blog posts for details, but these outputs arise from processes such as synchronous neuronal firing when we pay attention, leading to dendritic spine protrusion, leading to axon connection and synapse proliferation and amplification of downstream signalling to reinforce the experience). This is not really much different to what is happening when we move our index finger – where the moving of the finger is the material ‘output’ occuring from a set of physical processes (both within the finger muscles and tendons and within the brain to direct it to move). Of course, the more we practice the more precision we get.

As it happens we tend to mostly be pretty reasonable at lifting and stopping a finger. Children have to practice these outputs, they have to develop the dexterity so they can feed themselves, learn to manipulate toys, tie up their shoe-laces, or, learn to write. These sorts of ‘ouputs’ are easy to see and they are measureable – so they feel very controllable.

On the other hand, mental outputs, such as thoughts, images and memories are less overt, less concrete – harder to grapple with, because they are ‘privatised’ within our skulls. Since these psychological phenomena appear to be less material and harder to get a grip of – they exert an element of ‘mystique’ appearing less as objects that we can control. This is reflected in the brain/mind split – where the mind was seen as different and more mysterious than the brain.

Not only this, but it has only been relatively recently that advanced microscopy techniques have allowed researchers to get a really good look at what is happening within the brain when we learn, concentrate and lay down memories. Until about a decade ago, most researchers still believed that we were born with a pre-wired brain that did not change appreciatively over life. Now we know, that parts of our brain (attention, cognition, learning, memory and connecting pathways) are very plastic and changing constantly as we learn.

Even though our mental phenomena seem harder to get a grip on and are hidden away within our heads – they actually are no different and they are able to be controlled with the same level of dexterity and precision as any other ‘body’ behaviour (which is directed from the brain in any case).

Now, you might think that everyone knows this. But believe me, most people do not really know it. I say this, because I look at peoples’ behaviour and whenever people are stuck in ongoing patterns or habits of anxiety, depressive rumination, anger, aggression or compliance it is precisely because they have not yet learnt that they can exert massive levels of control over their own internal mental events.

Exactly what we need to learn to achieve mental control will be talked about in the next blog…