Posts Tagged ‘ scripting ’

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.

Opening a Terminal

…otherwise known as “What It’s Like to Be a Fish, Part 2.”

I have to start by showing you this TED talk that just grips me every time I watch it. It’s by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who experienced a stroke in her left hemisphere, and…well, I’ll let it speak for itself.

Dr. Taylor, having a staring contest with a human brain.

On the morning of December 10, 1996, I woke up to discover that I had a brain disorder of my own. A blood vessel exploded in the left half of my brain. And in the course of four hours, I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage, I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.

Would you mind spending 15 minutes or so with her story, if I promise you that it will make you think long and hard about your connectome – about yourself?

During her stroke, Dr. Taylor experienced a series of events that took her to the edge of consciousness – to what some might call the “fringes” of science itself. She brought back a story that is, to say the least, strange and intriguing.

Whatever your thoughts about her out-of-body experience, it’s easy to see that Dr. Taylor is trying her best to report, as accurately as she knows how, the subjective experience of watching her own brain shut down piece by piece. The interpretation is hers, of course – but even a skeptical science hero like me can’t ignore how unusual it is that Dr. Taylor’s consciousness was preserved intact through such a devastating chain of cerebral hardware failures.

What I want to talk about is her inner voice – that “mental chatter” she mentions. She calls it the voice of the “left brain,” which is accurate enough – as soon as I say it’s the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, someone’s going to come along and say I define the area too generally or too specifically – and she describes a point when she could literally hear that voice speaking to her muscles:

I could actually hear the dialogue inside of my body. I heard a little voice saying, “OK. You muscles, you gotta contract. You muscles, you relax.”

Is this really going on all the time – this chatter to our muscles?

Can I just toss an idea out, here? Maybe the verbal chatter is a component – in human left prefrontal cortexes, at least – of sequential reasoning. In people like me, it’s in words. In people who use sign language, it’s in sign. In any case, maybe the chatter is about whatever the attention of the subjective consciousness is focusing on at any given moment.

But that doesn’t mean the chatter doesn’t affect our brain’s non-conscious processing. Just the opposite, actually. Self-talk is a major influence on how we interpret our experiences, which ones we remember most readily, and how we assemble those into a concept of a self – not the subjective self of the “now” moment, but the story we tell ourselves, constantly, about who we are.

This endless interface of the subjective consciousness with “the script” – and the sequential mode of thinking it represents – breaks down to a basic pattern:

1) You have an experience (A mime hands you a peanut-butter sandwich.)

2) Your connectome searches memory for a similar situation. (“I’ve never been handed a peanut butter sandwich on the street before…but I remember that one time a mime accosted me with an invisible scythe.”)

3) Your connectome “sorts” the new experience, and comes up with a few possible responses. (“I should run like hell, lest he start wielding an invisible scythe! Unless…well, that peanut butter does look delicious.”)

4) The motivation that gathers the most brainpower to its cause gains access to enough action selection circuits in the basal ganglia to override all suppression signals and initiate a response in the peripheral nervous system. At some point, the subjective consciousness is alerted that the conceptual “self” has come to a decision.

OK, that last one involved some speculation, I admit.

But it’s clear, at any rate, that this inner chatter is heavily involved in the ongoing narration that helps maintain a coherent sense of a “self” in the abstract. Consciously altering that narration – rewriting the script as you go along – can cause changes in self-perception, which translate to concrete changes in behavior. I’m sure you’ve heard about self-talk before, but are you familiar with scripting?

A related – and controversial – concept is biofeedback: the idea that when you can see the results of your own physiological processes in real time on a monitor, your connectome can be taught to regulate those processes differently – to slow down your heart rate, erase your migraines, and so on.

The thing about biofeedback is, it mostly seems to work on stress-related disorders. So it would be easy to say biofeedback just teaches people to manage stress, which allows their bodies to function more healthily. And I think that’s completely true – but I think there’s another, more useful concept at work here.

See, the brain isn’t isolated up inside the skull – it’s wired into millions of neurons, all throughout the body, in a constant feedback loop. Control any part of the loop, and you control that input to the brain. Another way to say it is, the human brain may be the first organ capable of consciously programming (and reprogramming) itself and its body. This will be old news to anyone who practices meditation regularly.

So, scripts and feedback – where’s the take-home gift here, right? Coming up.

I think when a lot of people imagine a mental script, they’re probably thinking about a script for a movie or a play – one with lines and bits of description. And I’m sure those are part of anyone’s mental chatter. But I’d rather get beneath that surface, wouldn’t you?

A Linux terminal. Not pictured: women, social life.

I’m going to show my geek colors now: I think Linux is awesome. A lot of things about UNIX architecture kinda make my heart flutter. One thing I love is the terminal1, which is basically all that computer screens used to show: a prompt where you can type commands for the processor to execute. Or you can give the computer a command to execute a script – a pre-written set of instructions to perform a set of actions. Through the terminal, you can even tell the system execute a certain script at a certain time. You can to gain access to – and modify – files and folders that are normally invisible. You can run any program, and appear to be any user you want.

And this can all be done in a connectome.

One key lies in becoming attuned to – then reprogramming – the mental chatter of the left hemisphere. With practice, the mind’s scripts can be linked to sensory or emotional triggers, and automated. They can be safely tested in sandboxes. Inputs and outputs can be rerouted. Combined with bodily feedback, scripts can be used not only to consciously alter any mood, but to erase or create entire behavior patterns.

Now that I’ve explained the basic idea, I’d say I’m about ready to break open the toolbox. So next time, I’m going to talk about three specific examples of using conscious bodily feedback and mental scripting to create concrete changes in behavior and circumstances. And I’m going to explain the neurochemical reasons why they work.

Until then, I’ll sign off with this: your connectome may not be a computer, but it’s a pretty fun thing to hack!


1. Yes, I know Windows can run a DOS shell and use batch scripts. My scientific opinion is that Linux is more fun. Can’t we all get along?


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