Addiction to thought?

In a recent interview with Tedx Sydney I talk about the epidemic of chronic thinking. Below are my direct responses. Interviewed by Tedx Sydney writer Karla Daly (KD).

KD – How does overthinking and underthinking affect us? Can we find peace in the middle of it?

KR: Thinking is an Art-form that gets structured depending on the industry you are invested in. As a scientist, my own thinking was designed for investigation – to think objectively on a matter and look at it from many different angles. Now however, we live in the ‘Age of Information’ – where information is available like fast food. This is creating a world where too few think before speaking and too many speak before thinking. This imbalance in thinking has resulted in both underthinking and overthinking.

The Art-form of thinking has also been manipulated by the state of our own nervous system. When the nervous system is in fear – the sympathetic state, we find that we are fighting against this moment – wanting it to be different or fleeing from it. When we chronically resist this moment, we find that we may be trapped too far back in time and in psychiatry we call this depression. When we are chronically trapped in the future, we call this anxiety. This epidemic of chronic thinking keeps us trapped – looking at the hands of time and deprives us from giving our full attention to this moment.

The sweat spot in thinking is when the mind is still and our undivided attention is on this moment. In these instances, we find that we are suddenly bombarded by creative insights. In neuroscience, we know that creative thoughts, sudden insights and solutions to problems appear when the brain is in the high frequency Gamma bandwidth. Gamma always precedes the low frequency alpha – when our brain is calm but introspectively alert. The brain cannot sustain high frequency Gamma because, the human brain is metabolically expensive. Even when the brain is at rest, it uses 20% of the body’s metabolic energy even though it only weighs 2% of the body mass. This is 10 times more energy it is meant to be using, given its weight. We can however, through practice sustain a parasympathetic state where brain and body are calm and relaxed and this is the balance between undethinking and overthinking – where our brain is frequently relaxed, with short bursts of creative thinking.

KD – Can we use our thoughts to heal us through the mind-body connection? Why or why not?

KR: The mind-body connection is the epitome of healing. The strength of this connection can be measured and is known as vagal tone. The higher the vagal tone, the better the communication between brain and body. The lower the vagal tone, the more dis-ease we find both mentally, physically and physiologically. This dis-ease with our own body is often the source of what we conventionally call – diseases. Strengthening vagal tone has been used medically in the treatment of depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. In an experiment conducted in the United States in 2002, researchers found that autoimmune dysfunctions such as rheumatoid arthritis can be restored through electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve – a process that extinguishes chronic inflammation without affecting healthy immune function (Tracey, K. J. (2002). “The inflammatory reflex.” Nature 420(6917): 853-859.)

Our thoughts may be powerful, however we are yet to harness the healing capacity of our own body. The emerging evidence from studies looking at the connection between brain and body are suggesting that it is the state of our own nervous system that triggers healing. When the body is in a parasympathetic state – we find that the body reverts to rest, restoration and repair. The internal state of homeostasis is promoted by the human growth factor (hGF) and the brain equivalent to this is the brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Studies are showing that it is our state (sympathetic/parasympathetic) that determines our fate. When our nervous system is in fear – thoughts can be corrosive and we begin to carry around emotional burdens. It is when we feel safe in our own bodies that we find the confidence to be playful and play in itself is healing.

KD – What do you believe we are searching for when we are chronically thinking? Does this drive us or deplete us?

KR: When we dwell on dreams, we forget to live, because we keep seeking the next possibility for fulfillment and in doing so, we live in denial of this moment. We may believe that we can think our way out of problems, however this is not true. There exists a great paradox – we live in a world that is constantly changing. This is compounded by the rapid evolution of technology and our biology is becoming dangerously accustomed to a virtual world while we live the rest our lives, trapped in time. The paradox is that the moment to moment uncertainty causes fear. Fear makes our thinking linear and goal directed and our time based thinking is what works poorly under uncertainty. When we learn about our nervous system – we can trust in our natural abilities when we don’t know what to do. This is perhaps why our best insights come to us when we least expect it – when we take our mind off the problem and take a quite walk or are in the shower.

When we are forcing a solution by thinking our way through it, it will deprive us. However, when we are calm and relaxed and creativity suddenly strikes – we are able to stay up day and night and not feel depleted because there is a sense that we are being powered by something far greater than ourselves.

KD –  How do we stop our minds from being hijacked? (Signs, causes, situations and external stressors)

KR: We can discover the symptoms of chronic thinking by running a simple body audit:
1. What is your breathing like?
2. Are you relaxed?
3. What is your posture like?

The solution to chronic thinking is so simple, some might call it absurd. The solution is to simply breathe. I hear people saying “just breathe” in moments of stress but the problem is nobody shows you how to breathe in these moments and for this reason, breathing by itself, does not count. There is a natural phenomenon that occurs when we breathe. In science we call it – respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). This simply means that every time we inhale, the heart rate rises and every time we exhale, the heart rate slows down. When we prolong our exhales to at least twice as long as the inhales we find that our heart rate slows down and we naturally relax. The key is to breathe in through the nose and breathe out through the mouth. When we give full conviction to a single breath, it breaks the pattern of chronic thinking. With practice, we can prolong the gap between our thoughts while keeping our attention on introspective awareness. This is how we suddenly arrive at our destination, which has always been this moment.

KD – In this highly stimulating world, we are pushed by cognitive intelligence and strategies in order to become ‘higher thinkers’. But why is non-cognitive intelligence so powerful?

KR: We are born into a culture that educates us out of our bodies and traps us in our minds. We give more meaning to strategic thinking and refuse to use our instincts, intuitions and creative insights. And without our non-cognitive intelligence having a say in the matter, we strengthen the brain pathways that is derived from fear based thinking, because neurons that fire together, wire together. We may even dismiss the intelligence that is non-cognitive by calling it the reptilian brain. Yes, it is true that the brains basic functions take over when we are in tremendous fear and blood flow is redirected to more primitive parts of the brain and the frontal cortex is disabled so we feel hopeless and overwhelmed. Yet, we don’t often think of what non-cognitive abilities are available to us when we are calm and relaxed. The brainstem – often thought of as the most primitive part of the brain is the source of the 10th cranial nerve – the vagus nerve which descends from the brainstem into the body. Scientists previously thought that it is the brain that regulates the body. So we called the brain the central nervous system (CNS) and the body the autonomic nervous system (ANS). However, recent studies are showing that 85% of the information traveling in the vagus nerve is afferent – meaning, it is going into the brain. In this sense, the body is regulating the brain.

By using the breathing technique described above, we can strengthen our vagal tone and heighten the communication between brain and body. The organ based information is what I call non-cognitive intelligence. Take for example, ‘gut’ instinct. The gut normally registers the feelings of disgust. This instinct is crucial in identifying what foods are edible and what is poisonous. As an experiment, you can investigate whether the gut can register psychological feelings of disgust. When someone asks you to do something for them, actively pay attention to how your gut is feeling. If your gut feels unwell in the conversation, you may find that you are being manipulated into doing something you do not wish to do. Test is out for yourself and make note of the outcomes.

KD – In your work, how has non-cognitive intelligence affected the people you work with? How does this affect our mind and how we live?

KR: In my own work, I have come to rely on my non-cognitive intelligence more so than anything that my mind can come up with. In eastern traditions, there is a saying – the mind is a useful servant but a dangerous master. In my own experience, I find that if the mind is not directed introspectively, it very quickly becomes self-serving and this leads to suffering because we are constantly striving to get what we want. The mind can be incredibly deceptive and may even manipulate itself into destruction. So goes the saying – the path to heaven is paved with good intentions. When we relieve the mind from the traps of time, we find that we have an overwhelming sense of appreciation for this moment. We no longer need to practice gratitude because, we are grateful in real-time. This sense of appreciation fosters real connection between people and allows us to open up to creativity and collaboration.


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