Brain Science – Episode #16

Developing a mental framework

consider the programming that determines your thinking

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The quality of your thinking depends on your mental framework. To become a better thinker you need to have an understanding of this mental framework and how you view the world. But, what exactly is a mental framework? How have we all been programmed throughout our lives? In what ways have you been programed that you like, don’t like, or want to change? Join us as we explore and examine the key components of developing a mental framework.

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What is a mental framework?

Well, a mental framework is the way in which you learn how to make sense of yourself and the world. Imagine a puzzle and how you fit pieces together. It’s this interaction between your experiences in the world and yourself, and the way in which you see them fitting together.

So if everyone’s unique - you’re not me, I’m not you, we’re not the same, we don’t have the same life - would it be safe to say that we have infinite worldviews?

That could possibly be. I mean, if you think about it, similar to that, of growing up with siblings in a household - generally speaking, you have the same parents with full-blooded siblings, and so you’ve gone through the same things. However, the way in which you both respond and/or make sense of your experience in those situations is definitely not the same.

Why is it important to develop this mental framework? Why is maybe even important to understand that you have one, or that you’re creating one?

Well, I think it’s really important, because one, like we talk about the “name it to tame it”, the awareness that your mind is always putting pieces together - it’s always accommodating new data. And if you aren’t considerate of or around your (even) biases, hypotheses, underlying beliefs, you don’t recognize that you’re actually putting things together that may not go together. I think a lot about this within the realm of sports, or high-level athletics, wherein people are trained around resiliency, and there’s a lot of practicing the fundamentals, because you have to get really good at the basics in order to then do the advanced things, wherein the basics are so routine that they’re so integrated, that it’s just like “This is the way to work we go. This is the just the play my brain runs.” And then with that, going “Every time I show up for a game or an event, how do I make sense of it if I don’t win? Do I look at myself as a failure, or as though I have failed? Is that the way I interpret that experience?”

[00:04:16.21] So the framework is how you respond to things like that. It’s your way of thinking.

Yeah, and I would say it’s an interpretation. So if I were to presume that I failed - I didn’t win a game, or I didn’t win first place - that would have implications for my choices thereafter, because it’s probably gonna be tethered to some ill or negative feelings, which wouldn’t necessarily make me prone to go repeat that activity.

Is the good question here to ask “How have we been programmed?” Because you’ve got the mental framework, which is the way in which you’ve allowed yourself or have been programmed by the world, conditioning, and then the question might be, for our listeners to consider as they’re listening to this conversation here - how have you been programmed?

And to consider that. Because a lot of that subconsciously happens. Like, I’m programmed and don’t even know it, to some degree. My biases aren’t always revealed to me, and my way of thinking isn’t always super-clear to me until I take the time to be more aware and examine it.

Yes. So I see this a lot, and even if I take it way back - and if you are familiar with Pavlov’s dogs, around conditioning, with a dog salivating at the sound of a bell. It was basically around the way in which this dog was reinforced to do a particular behavior, with two things that didn’t necessarily go together, but went together for him, so that you no longer needed that same cue in order to have that response.

If I put together a bell and food, the dog began to go “Oh! I start salivating because I know I’m gonna get fed.” Well, bells don’t typically cause dogs to salivate, but they did thereafter in this case. So I am very aware of this, given the state of our affairs globally, and recognizing that all people are having different responses, and a lot to do with either past experiences, which were negative, and the way in which they made sense of that, or what the emotional impact of a past experience was… And then how they’re trying to navigate it now, given that it wasn’t the past - we’re living in the current, but their brain is still running the play as if the past event were live.

Yeah. So that’s how trauma works.

It doesn’t know time, really. It’s like “Oh, that hurt then, it hurts now, it will hurt tomorrow, and I have to act this way because of it.”

Yeah, and I think that it’s interesting, because even talking about trauma - I want our listeners to be considerate that we’ve all been traumatized in some way or another, so a lot of people… Even Michael Gervais - he’s a sports psychologist for the Seahawks - references this in terms of big T trauma versus little t trauma… Big T trauma being legitimate abuse, or a way in which you were directly exposed to some sort of threat, either you witnessed, or directly experienced the potential for harm to your or harm to somebody else. So it could be like in war, it can be childhood abuse, it could be first-responders, things of that nature… As opposed to little t, wherein it still was traumatic, meaning it was upsetting, but it didn’t have the same gravity or extremity as the big T trauma.

[00:07:52.22] One of the key things in that is when we go through something traumatic, that we get activated in the sense of fight, flight or freeze. So I can feel helpless, like there’s no way out, because legitimately in those past experiences it was. I couldn’t escape. So now we have different constraints. For a number of people it looks like shelter in place, and going “Oh my word, my brain is telling me I feel like I can’t get out”, and now I’m reactive to that way in which it feels familiar, and now it feels dangerous.

So this is where I wanna look back and go – imagine that our mental framework literally were a puzzle with a picture, and that it’s not a static thing. We can change and modify the way in which we make sense of both ourselves and how we respond to our environment.

What’s interesting about the bubble we’re all creating to some degree with this shelter in place - there’s a large majority of the world that is in shelter in place, in that sort of mode; either self-induced, because they have desires to stay home, stay safe, the whole thing that is the mantra out there, or they’re directed by local officials or governments to act this way in respect for humanity and stopping the spread of Coronavirus. And what’s interesting is that as this happens, we’re conditioning ourselves, we’re programming ourselves this sort of mental framework that “outside bad, inside good”, you know what I mean?

So anytime I go out, I’m essentially in a traumatic situation. Sure, I’m not a first-responder, I’m not on the frontlines, in a hospital, dealing with direct Covid patients and helping them through to survival, but in any given moment outside my house is risk, and that’s traumatic.

Yeah, it is. And it’s interesting, because one of the strategies I talk about a lot with patients when it comes to anxiety is that it’s really important to differentiate between things that have occurred in the past, that were threatening, and the not-active threat of the present. And the problem legitimately is we do have an actual threat today… So how do I make sense of it and how to I stay grounded, given there is something that has the potential to be incredibly dangerous, and maybe not just to me, but to somebody that I care about… So how do I go about navigating myself and how do I make sense of even being set apart from everyone else? Because we’ve talked about the value of social relationships…

And isolation, yeah. Often the remedy is connection. And if you can’t connect in the most meaningful way, which is physically – not that you have to give somebody a hug, or intimately touch, but the point is human connection has a lot of exchange.

Yeah, it does. So it’s interesting, even the fact that we’re using the word “social distancing” so often… Because I would prefer to use the word “physical distancing”, because I definitely don’t want people to be more disengaged or distant socially… But rather physical proximity is what is different.

[00:11:40.14] Yeah. It’s terrible too, because not only do you have the threat of illness to you, your loved ones, a lot of people are dealing with financial hardships and uncertainty around that… So you’ve got several layers of traumatic things happening, that don’t have a clear end in sight… And I think the reason why we’re talking about this mental framework is to help people understand their conditioning, how they’re being programmed and how they’re actively today being programmed through this scenario we’re all in.

Yeah, precisely, because we’re not threatened in the same way we once upon a time were in terms of lions, tigers and bears, but the lions, tigers and bears in our world literally is our financial stability… Because that’s how we go about navigating our world and being able to barter and manage the things we need, like shelter. That is threatening, so my body and my brain are going to be reactive around it.

I’ve talked about this before, but one of the things that’s really important when we look at psychological health is this notion of cognitive flexibility. And I like to talk about it like yoga for your brain. You want to be able to stretch, or move, or flex, as opposed to being very cognitively rigid, or really thinking in more binary terms. If I think that either I’m safe or unsafe, I’m sick or I’m well, I’m capable or I’m incapable, I am apt to struggle more. So if you can recognize – a mental framework is a form, this abstract, intangible form that we have, that enables us to go about our lives and our days… And there’s some of the ways in which we create constraints that don’t help us to adapt when changes like this occur.

We might go deeper into the subject at some point in the future, but can you go one layer further on the dangers of absolute thinking? The sort of black-and-white thinking, binary, as you mentioned.

Yeah. Well, it really doesn’t capture – and bear in mind, when I’m talking about this cognitive flexibility, this is more so in adults; kids are prone to do this just because their level of abstraction is different than ours. But we need it because much of life is very abstract. I think about so often when people make judgments of other people, about how they shoulda/woulda/coulda done X, Y or Z in a critical situation… And it’s easy to have those judgments. However, you don’t necessarily know all of the reasons, or potentially even have all of the data around why that person might choose this response in this particular scenario. So if I don’t have flexibility to see it from any other perspective, it really impedes my ability to relate with others, because I can’t necessarily give merit to another’s perspective, because it’s not my own.

Also, there’s theories of moral development. Psychologists have come up with this way in which we actually build our ability to make sense around morality… Because again, not everybody thinks the same way, hence why people are reacting to the possibility, and feeling threatened, and therefore going out and taking action around making sure that they have measures to protect themselves.

Yeah. If someone is trying to figure out how they’re programmed, what they like, what they don’t like, what’s a good way to examine the framework that you operate in?

I don’t think many people are gonna like this answer, but I’m gonna say it anyway…

Okay… I can’t wait.

Write it down. Journal.

Okay… So journal how I think.

[00:15:58.24] Yeah. So I would, ironically – and I would do it first thing in the morning, and imagine that you sort of go “BLARGHH!” and you sort of throw out all the extraneous things, because it’s the most of freeform way… You wake up, nothing else has happened, you have no other interference. I mean, you could do it first thing in the day, or I would say even at the end of the day, because it would be the antithesis, to some degree, of that. You had the day, it’s been up, it’s been down… Write it down. And the reason being is that you then have the opportunity to look back and look at themes in what you’ve written down, and go “Gosh, I continue to say the same thing. Huh. I feel this same way every time I do *fill in the blank*.”

What you’re suggesting is be a scientist. Collect data about yourself, and analyze it.

Yeah. So I don’t have somebody walking around, taking play-by-play, and I’m not always aware of my internal dialogue… We reference it a lot of self-dialogue, or sometimes we have this way of talking to ourself that’s very critical, our inner critic. So I would say something to myself that I would never say to a friend, but I’m going to hold myself to this expectation.

Really what is at the forefront of so many people right now is change. Everybody is having to change the way in which they would typically operate. Even a lot of people listening had their way in which they would listen to the podcast; be in on their way to work, which maybe they’re not going to work, or they’re not going to school, or all of these different changes… So it just makes it harder for them to do themselves and manage themselves in the same way they did, because they’re taking more energy to learn and accommodate around the changes they have to make if they’re going to keep going.

If you’ve read the book “Who Moved my Cheese?” I wanna know. You can come in Slack and say hello; or Twitter, because that works, too. But I’m really curious, because you mentioned change… Who has gone, since we’ve had that recent episode where we talked about it, has read that book? Because that’s what that book is all about - handling, reacting to, dealing with, making sense of change. The whole book. It’s a four-hour read, if that, and amazing if you wanna understand a bird’s eye view of change.

Yeah. And look, this is fundamentally how we’re designed. We are designed to adapt, and that’s why being aware of this mental framework helps me be more intentional about what I do in response to especially things that create negative feelings for me.

Right? I’ve heard a lot of people reference this time, like “I can go through it or I can grow through it.”

And I don’t know if – do you grow very much, Adam? Do you guys garden?

No, we don’t grow anything, honestly. We grow kids… Not vegetables though. Well, I suppose we have grass, and some landscaping, but that’s about all we grow.

Well, it’s interesting, because I think about that process of planting, or sort of sowing and reaping, and even I can talk about it as it relates to kids… But there is this degree of patience…

Yeah, that’s true.

…and really adapting, because in the case of planting food - are you in charge of the weather? No…

Well, I mean, you can be, in a controlled environment, sure. So that could be argued. But yeah, I get it; if we’re relying only on rain, then the answer is no, you don’t have control.

[00:19:54.02] Right. This is coming back to some of that binary thinking - if I presume I have all the charge in my life, that isn’t true; I do have some control, but not all control. So imagine I am always operating under certain constraints, and that there is a process to anything I do, be it raising food, or raising children.

I always talk about this a lot with moms, in terms of, you know, you plant and you plant and you plant, and repeat, repeat, and five years later you’re like “Oh my gosh, it took root!” [laughter]

I can’t believe they believe that, because I said that 17,000 times.

Yes! Yeah, so interestingly enough, those are some of the things that are sticky for each one of us. I’m sure if everybody took a second, and I’m like “Tell me something that you heard all the time growing up. What was a statement your parents said to you, or what was the sort of thing that was ingrained in you about how you operate?”

Hm… Something very silly, but “Don’t crush your eyes, they’ll stay that way.”

Right?! [laughs] Yeah.

Stupid stuff, that seems silly, but – and you extrapolate that across other… And then what’s really more interesting is that your parents were programmed by their parents, and onward up.

And some of us have grandparents who lived in the depression, and there’s a lot that – the way that impacted society then impacted the way they treated resources, and family, and finances, and all that good stuff. So those things get passed down through generations and they become – people are more frugal than they maybe should be, because they had parents who went through a traumatic financial hardship like the depression, for example.

Right, and so that had emotion. There was legitimate threat, which caused an emotional response, which then got embedded, which then was sort of like never questioned.

This is true.

Like, I’m always going to keep things; I don’t let things go, because if I do, I might not ever replace them.

Right. When you say that, that reminded me of the show Hoarders.

There’s some extreme situations there, and it’s a shame – we actually watch that show to some degree for entertainment, because it is kind of entertaining to see how extreme people can be about their belongings, and their health conditions, and their hygiene, and sanitary of their home… And the root cause of all those situations - and I’ve watched many episodes, less about entertainment and more about just being human - is trauma. Some sort of traumatic event, usually loss of a loved one or something like that, and now they hold on to everything… Because they lost something really valuable and they never wanna lose anything of value again, so they value everything, and nothing leave.

And who gets to be in charge of when it leaves?

They do. They’re in control.

Yeah. Which they didn’t have before.

What’s really more interesting - and I don’t wanna harp on this too far, but how extreme their environments can get, their homes.

Really dirty, really unsanitary… Almost no cleaning, almost like they’re trying to harm themselves indirectly, without consciously doing it. Not intentionally - it doesn’t seem, in most cases - but it’s really interesting how trauma affects us. And that show is an extreme example of the ramifications of trauma.

[00:23:52.09] Yeah. And I think I’ve said this before, but that way in which it’s not our eyes that actually do the seeing. Our rods and cones simply take in light, but it’s our brain that runs the program that puts that together and assigns a word and a meaning to that.

So literally, those people don’t see it the way somebody else sees it, and it’s protective. Again, imagine I am constructing my brick wall so that nothing can harm me. So if someone would say to me “There’s a problem with your wall’, I’d be like “No, you need to go build one, too.” So I’m going to be far more possessive around those defense strategies, so that I stay safe.

What we’re seeing now is a different ramification of trauma. We’re seeing grief happen, we’re seeing depression happen… In many cases it’s easy to have this “grieving the future”, this future loss that hasn’t quite come yet, this uncertainty; the grief that comes from looking at your calendar and seeing things on there that are not occurring anymore. It could be something with your kids, it could be something with work, it could be a life goal, a vacation, whatever it might be… But there’s things that were planned, that aren’t happening, that we’re grieving.

Yes, most certainly. So how do we make sense of that? What do we do with that loss, and how do we respond to it? It in no way is helpful to minimize any person’s struggle. Because look, not all of us are encountering the same stressors. We all are encountering stress, but how we respond to whatever it is; if it’s a loss of some expected anticipated event, or break, or engagement with friends, or some routine I’ve done annually over and over again, or it’s the finances, or it’s the health of either ourselves or someone we care about. There’s loss, and it doesn’t help to say “Well, that isn’t true” or “I shouldn’t feel that way.” The way we do it is by setting that grief alongside other things we know to be true.

Look, if you can imagine, the reason I even like the word “framework” is because it provides literally a form for how we think. It would be really weird if I created some sort of recipe and I had no container and I put it in the oven.

That’s so true. I was gonna go back to your grow analogy, which is like tomatoes often need –

They go along a vine. Right, they need that lattice to connect to. And without it, they just kind of grow everywhere, with no constraints and no framework. Given a framework, they can grow in a way that’s desired from the grower. And you’re the grower, right? You’re the grower of your life.

Right. So if you can imagine, our framework is really where the internal and the external come together and create a shape. You can always change that shape. That’s the great thing… And go “Look, we’ve all been trained.” Nobody is immune. And some of the things that people have experienced, that really were painful and traumatic - that’s really hard for them to continue to deal with, and this is a way in which people get activated.

It’s interesting, when I was in graduate school I had an opportunity to work on a program specifically for - in this case it was women with co-occurring disorders, so substance abuse and trauma. And the challenge and treating this population of individuals was that if they started to try to work on the trauma, they would get reactivated and then go back to drinking, because that’s how they coped.

[00:28:10.12] But then you take away drinking and then they’re activated back by their trauma. So they literally had this double-edged sword where they didn’t know how or where to go to change things… And thankfully, there was a program that someone created, to go “Hey, here’s how we can do both at the same time, and support you and provide a scaffolding, so that you can have a different life, and that you’re not imprisoned by your history.”

I think about like doing anything. If you need to do pretty much anything - cook a recipe, get up early… I was just watching a re-run of Today’s Show, because they’re actually running previously-recorded versions of it… Whatever, it doesn’t matter. The point is I saw Mark Wahlberg and Al Roker and others on there talk about this morning routine… And it talked about Mark Wahlberg’s recipe for getting up. So I may never have the hope to get up at 2:30 AM like he does, and have the routine he does, but if I was motivated enough to change and I saw his recipe, I might be able to follow it, right?

So without this framework, without this recipe - like you said, imagine trying to cook something with no container; just shoving it in the oven. That’s not gonna happen. But at the same time, wouldn’t it be easier to cook in general, if you had the recipe?

Almost anybody can be a cook if they had the right utensils, the right containers, the right materials, and also the recipe. They need those things, those are all key components.

That’s so fascinating that you shared that, because I think about it – you know, from my experience, having been raised, I was never in the house. My mom was an amazing cook; she grew up cooking all the time. But my mental framework was – I never practiced. It wasn’t a skill I cultivated as a child, because I wasn’t home; I was out doing other things. So I went and built other skills, that were helpful and fun and great, but they weren’t in that lane. So I could say that my framework was “I’m not a good cook”, or “I can’t cook”, which is hilarious, because now one of my children (God bless them) always tells me “Mom, you should open a restaurant.” [laughter] “Thank you, child. I’m glad you appreciate what I cook.”

Let me echo that, because we have a son who everytime we cook - almost every time - if I led the cooking, or my wife led the cooking, either of us, or it could be both of us, “Mom, dad, you’re the best cook ever.” Best of the best. You want that kind of kid.

Right? And it’s funny, because one of my children says “You’re the best mom ever”, and I’m like “Well, I am your only mom”, so I’m an n of 1. [laughs]

She still meant it… But you were like “Ah, whatever…” [laughs]

Well, it’s funny, because what I’m getting at is this way in which our experiences have the capacity to teach us… And we’ve all learned things in the past, but considering – like, do you reflect on that? Are you aware of that, and is it working for you? That’s the value in looking at your mental framework. It’s sort of like we all built these associations, or imagine I learn to speak one language and then I move to a different country. It would not help me to keep speaking the language from my native country in a new one, unless they had the same one.

True, yeah.

[00:31:51.19] So I have to be adaptable and considerate of even the other ways in which people interface, that isn’t how I learned.

Yeah. The driver for me is this aspect of ability to change, this hope, which is a key ingredient for life. Without hope, we wither, so hope that we can change. No matter where you’re at, whatever your biases, whatever your framework is, whatever your concerns are, traumas, depression, these things can all – and maybe you can speak to the “all” aspect of that; I tend to speak in absolutes… But the aspect that change is possible - that’s what keeps me going. That even though I may not be where I am today, or where I wanna be at today, for whatever reason - not so much professionally, but just in my framework, how I think, doesn’t mean that I can’t begin to cultivate new skills and change by examining, by writing it down, by being more aware.

Exactly. And consider the board of advisors, like who are your people who you allow to give you feedback around who you are and how you think. Because we’re all incredibly nuanced; this is why I love people and I’m fascinated by people’s minds… And how they made sense of their world and what to do about it. Because everybody has had unique experiences, and going “You know, I can see how you put those two things together, but you know what - I don’t think those serve you well in the way in which they did at the time that you needed them.”

A very extreme and somewhat odd analogy would be like, you know, most adults - I mean, many adults; I try to be considerate of language - don’t continue to wear diapers as they did when they were infants. So it would be odd if you didn’t have that need to wear that. Or using all these adaptive equipment or ways in which we have support. You get injured, you use crutches, you might need a wheelchair, you might need a scooter, because it allows for support as you heal.

So I think there are a ton of things in life that happen that are aversive, unpleasant, unwanted, and all of those things. But I don’t want people to get rid of the opportunity amidst the unpleasantness of the experience… Because you could learn something. You could go “I had no idea I could shift my perspective and actually see that this is an opportunity to do something or respond in a way that is different from how I’ve responded in the past.”

It comes back to “Are you going through it, or are you growing through it?” And I love that, because you what experiences you’re having that you can learn from - I think in some cases it’s hard to see and to learn amidst traumatic issues, grief, depression, uncertainty like we may be going through now, but the point is that you do grow through things, and there’s opportunity for growth. While it may not always seem easy to say, there tends to be some silver lining in all situations, and I try to be the optimist and see the good, versus only seeing the bad. Like, is the glass half full, or is it half empty? I tend to think it’s half full.

Yeah. I want our listeners to be aware - there is too a difference in how we think and how we feel. I can be optimistic, and yet at the same time feel apprehensive, uncertain, and I might even ride waves of like “Oh, gosh… I’m not sure I can do this.” Or even just the sheer frustration associated with the rapid rate of change.

[00:36:01.08] I’ve described this time a lot like living with Garmin, and you keep having to turn and change direction, and it keeps talking back at you… Like, “Recalculating… Recalculating…” and then it’s like “There is no road. Turn around. You can’t go that way.”

Right… [laughter] Like your Garmin inner voice.

Yes, yes. And you know what - it’s like, you just have to also be patient with yourself as you’re trying new things… Because remember that it takes energy to acclimate and adjust. There is such a thing as decision fatigue, because it’s using more resources… And if I’m looking at holding options A, B, C and D simultaneously and figuring out which piece would fit best as given where I am right now and where I wanna be and where I was, that takes energy.

It’s a lot to hold.

It is, it is. And so of course I’m gonna drop a ball in another area, because I’m allocating energy and resources to this other thing that is a priority at this time. When you can see in which how you make sense of the world can work for you, it gets to be fun, and you begin to see things as an adventure. I think we’ve talked about this in past episodes about “For the love”, and like why do we do certain things, and why are some people really heeding the shelter in place. It’s not just because some random person, some appointed elected official said “Do it.” It’s for the love. For the love of human kind, for the love of their family, themselves, for the greater good.

I think that’s where the fun sets in, because you can begin to embrace something that you might typically see as aversive, and go “Wow…!” It becomes this sort of opportunity for discovery. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt or create pain, but not all pain is created equal.

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