Hacking Your Connectome

Last time, after I explained some basic theory behind connectome hacking, I promised I’d give you three concrete examples of using your nervous system’s built-in circuitry to create changes in your own behavior, and the circumstances in which you find yourself. I’m really excited to show you these techniques, so let’s get right into it.

Example 1: Rerouting With Math

Sir Isaac Newton, Ambassador of Math.

When’s the last time you were a little intoxicated (or just over-tired) and said something you wish you could take back? You can be honest; for me it was last weekend.

Something like “Mail Goggles” might’ve come in handy. It’s a program that requires people to solve a few arithmetic problems before sending an email. The idea is that if you’re not calm (and sober) enough to do some simple math, you might be about to send an email you’ll regret.

The designers of Mail Goggles have stumbled onto broader implications, though – math seems to be a sort of antidote to runaway emotions. A growing body of scientific research shows that concentrating on mental arithmetic can immediately decrease negative feelings, and even control social anxiety.

This is a technique you can apply whenever you feel sadness or panic creeping up. As soon as you notice those negative emotions, acknowledge them for what they are, then focus all your attention on doing arithmetic. Add up the digits of your phone number. Multiply the digits of your birth date, or street addresses you see. In a minute or so, you should notice that you’re feeling much calmer. It’s important to keep all your attention focused on the math, even as you start to calm down.

This works because, in a connectome, attention is a limited resource. If your brain’s processing power is focused intensely on a cognitive task, your emotions aren’t able to consume as much attention – and vice versa. That’s not to say math is devoid of emotion; any complex task involves many regions of the brain, and any distinctions we make at this point are likely to be fuzzy ones. It’s more that the process of calculating puts emotions on the “back burner” as long as your attention is focused on the intellectual task.

A brain region called the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG) plays a major part in modulating your connectome’s responses to different types of inputs. Physical pain, emotional distress, and math problems all place demands on the brain’s processing power – and these all activate different subregions of the ACG. This brain region seems to help conflicting emotional responses “debate” with each other until a decision about your response is reached.

Try experimenting a bit, by using the technique above to switch your ACG’s response-selection software between two basic “modes” of perception – emotions and cognition. Watch the ways in which your overall mood shifts as you focus on a feeling, like panic or excitement; or on an intellectual puzzle, like a math problem. Practice switching between the perception modes until you can recognize and respond to both. If you discover any additional ones, I’d love to hear about them.

Example 2: Behavior Scripting

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’m not completely satisfied with my life. I’ve got some daydreams I’d like to turn into reality. Maybe you can help me figure something out – why haven’t they come true?

What about you – what’s the reason your dreams haven’t come true yet? It’s not a rhetorical question.

If you’re anything like me, your answer probably involves a phrase like “Because I can’t [X],” or “I don’t [Y],” or “I’m too [Z].” Or it might’ve been externally directed, using phrases like “People don’t [X],” or “There aren’t any [Y],” or “No one wants to [Z].”

Well, all those answers are examples of unhelpful mental scripts. At some point, a self in your connectome wrote each of them. Say, for example, that at various times in my past, I tried to talk to a few cute girls at parties, and got shot down almost every time. (This is all totally hypothetical, of course.) As I came to associate negative feelings with those experiences, the categorization software based in my temporal lobes got to work deriving some general principles from them, so I could avoid feeling that same way again. Depending on my mood, the principle might be self-defensive (for example, “The girls here don’t appreciate my awesomeness.”) or self-loathing (“Girls don’t want to talk to me; I’m happier if I don’t try.”). And over time, the principles I derived would come to define how I perceived myself and my capabilities.

A rejection. Not pictured: dignity.

But the funny thing is, the desire that motivated my original action (wanting to be friends with a pretty girl) isn’t just going to go away if I stop putting myself in those situations. Instead, it’ll be rephrased from an action-oriented “I will” to a more abstract “I wish, but...” And this is where those negative scripts come from.

It helps to picture desires – and the behavior patterns they represent – as though they’re wearing signs that say things like “safe” and “dangerous” and “iffy.” Whenever a desire that’s tagged “dangerous” musters enough neural circuitry to its cause that the body is about to act on it, the brain’s suppression circuits – probably centralized in the basal ganglia – override the drive to actually act on the motivation (“I will”). Instead, they restrict the feeling to playing out safely as a mental fantasy (“I wish”). As the left hemisphere works to rationalize this intra-connectome conflict, it generates verbal scripts like “I wish I could, but [reason why not].”

Scripts aren’t always verbalized, of course – but even when you’re not consciously thinking about your general principles, they’re influencing the way you perceive yourself and the world around you; which, in turn, influences how you act. But by verbalizing those negative scripts, then replacing them with new ones, you can consciously modify your own daydreaming into action – which gets you closer to the things you really want. Sound good?

Connectome scripting can be used to alter almost any behavior or perception; but right now, I want to talk about one simple change that will yield immediate results – replacing “wish” with “will.” This technique comes highly recommended by one of my favorite authors.

The method is simple: first, verbalize your desire, either out loud or in writing. Doing it in your head doesn’t work; you’ve gotta express it in words. When you hear or read it, you’ll probably find phrases like “I wish,” “I should,” or “I want.” Once you’ve got a clear sense of what you want, or feel you “should” do, just rephrase the desire to yourself –  replace “I wish” with “I will,” or “I’m going to,” then add a specific statement about how.

For example, you might replace, “I should write more fiction” with “I’m going to sit at my desk and write fiction from 6 to 8 pm every weeknight” – it’s an “I will” statement, and it includes a specific “how.” In the example about the girl at the party, you could replace “I wish I could talk to girls, but…” with “I’m going to talk to the very next girl I see.” The more specific and immediate the action, the better. Using the sequential reasoning software based in the left hemisphere, you’re re-tagging a remembered set of behaviors as “desirable” or “doable” – whichever you want.

It’ll help to write your new script down and glance at it every now and then. Keep saying it whenever you find yourself thinking about your desire. After a day or so, I think you’ll notice your behavior starting to change.

I hope you’ll post your results in the comments – I’m all about concrete proof.

Example 3: Image Re-scripting

Have you ever caught yourself staring at someone attractive? What about a cute animal or baby? Or a gorgeous car you’d love to own?

They all have something pretty obvious in common: they’re visual images that trigger emotional reactions. But those reactions aren’t set in stone.

For example, this car makes me want to sneer at people poorer than I am.

The principle here is similar to Example 2 – but the difference is, instead of rewriting a script associated with a behavior pattern, I’m going to show how it’s possible to alter your response to a visual image, by rewriting a script connected to it. Like both the examples above, the degree to which this one works depends largely on how much you mean the new script.

To retrain your image perception, just find an image of whatever you want to alter your response to. Sitting someplace comfortable… look at it. Calmly. Now, verbalize your response to it – and here’s the tricky and critical part: don’t hold anything back. Next, say your new response – “That car is weird-looking,” for example – out loud. And as you keep looking at the image, focus your attention on the new script. What you’re doing is similar to the math example above – you’re interrupting an emotional response and refocusing your attention on a cognitive task.

I’ll be honest and tell you that it often takes a few “training sessions” before this sort of re-scripting takes hold. Like I mentioned above, how much you mean the new script when you say it makes all the difference.

You’ve probably figured out by now that all these examples involved a similar idea at work: you always have the option to refocus your attention on a new concept or process, and modify your thinking. If you work at it regularly, like you’re training a muscle, re-scripting will lead to changes in behavior, which will lead to concrete changes in your circumstances. I know because I’ve done it.

So, this is the beginning. I’ll explain a lot more connectome hacking techniques in the next few weeks. Until then, I’m excited to hear about how these exercises work out for you.

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