Survival is the Brain's Job, Everything Else is a Gift

One of the most challenging concepts for people to understand, is why and how your brain might be holding you back to protect you, particularly if you don’t want it to.  Most people are aware that there are conscious and non-conscious parts of your brain.  Another way to think of them is that there is a part of your brain that you control (the conscious part) and a part that controls you (the nonconscious part).  The nonconscious brain’s priority is your survival and because it controls your strength, range of motion, physiology, feelings and emotions, it has plenty of tools to enable or limit your activity.

It’s kinda like your conscious brain is a toddler and your nonconscious brain is a parent.  A toddler often gets fascinated with a task or activity and is blissfully unaware of potential dangers.  The parent is constantly scanning the environment for risks and moderating the toddler’s activity depending on the perceived danger.

Let’s say the toddler starts up a set of stairs.  Usually a parent is evaluating the risk of a tumble, how skilled and experienced the child is at it, and whether there have been any prior catastrophes.  The parent then decides whether to stop the stair climbing before it starts, to limit the degrees of freedom the child has, to observe and be prepared to act or to let the climbing go unencumbered.  If there has been a prior accident, monitoring and restriction are likely to be at a much higher level and it may take a longer to fully trust the child’s climbing skills.

So if your non-conscious brain functions much like a parent, imagine how it might work if you’re a downhill ski racer who’s taken a horrible fall. Your tissues my take weeks, or a few months, to heal.  But ski racers, or any athlete for that matter, only perform at their best when they are relaxed. How relaxed would the parent be at that point?   That’s why any successful rehab form an injury or surgery has to include the brain as well as the body.

Your non-conscious brain receives between 11 and 20 million sensory signals a second just as an alert parent is constantly evaluating the child’s environment. Your conscious brain may be unaware of most of that information.  Let’s say your vision, balance or movement skill is a bit off for some reason.  You may not be able to consciously perceive it, but your non-conscious brain certainly can and it will hold you back in whatever you are trying to accomplish.  You may have experienced rapidly going down a set of stairs.  Most people can go quite a bit faster if they glide their hand down the handrail than if they don’t.  You’re not taking any weight off your legs and you’re arguably moving less efficiently.  Yet you go faster because your brain feels less threatened.

Oddly, learning new skills can be threatening to your brain.  Gradually expanding the envelope of your capabilities in a range of desirable difficulty is the fastest way to success.  If you attempt to much or too often, your brain is likely to balk and retard your progress.  This is why weight lifters gradually add weight over time and runners are advised not to increase their weekly mileage by more than 10%.

If you haven’t done something for a while, it can become threatening to your brain, too.  We had a client who successfully came through an extensive recovery from a severe illness.  When asked what he wanted for a next challenge, he said he hadn’t jumped in years.  Using the principle of desirable difficulty, we asked him to jump off a 1” piece of plywood.  He hesitated and looked like he was standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon!  We asked him to step off with one foot and work up from there.  15 minutes later he was jumping of a 12” platform.

Understanding all this is what we call the neural lens.  Learning how to know what your non-conscious brain perceives that you can’t and being able to work with it is the key to a better quality of life.  If you can reduce the threats that you brain constantly monitors, you will move better, have less pain and fatigue, and be able to do more.