8 Things About Your Mind You May Be Unaware Of

SharpenYourMind_articleThere are many things I love about psychology and one thing is how much it brings us altogether and yet makes us all unique individuals. There’s so much about our minds that we often aren’t aware of and don’t even know is happening most of the time.

Here I’ve shared 8 things that affect most of us to one agree to another, many of which you are unaware of even when it’s right in front of your face.

We all have a capacity for evil

Most people like to think that they could never be convinced, tricked or manipulated into doing something wrong, but the 1971 Stanford prison study showed how social situations can affect our behavior. In the study led by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, a mock prison was created in the basement of the Stanford psychology building and 24 undergraduate students were selected to play the roles of prisoners and guards.

Researchers then monitored the prisoners and the guards and watched in dismay as ordinary college students began to do unimaginable things to each other. The guards for instance became physically and psychologically abusive to the inmates who in turn began to exhibit extreme emotional stress and anxiety.

The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but the researchers ended it in just six days due to the abusive behavior of the students playing the roles of guards.

“The guards escalated their aggression against the prisoners, stripping them naked, putting bags over their heads, and then finally had them engage in increasingly humiliating sexual activities,” Zimbardo said.

These were all thought to be physically and mentally healthy college students who within days had turned into someone else.

This reminds me of the soldiers in Abu Ghraib where seemingly normal American soldiers began to ruthless abuse, humiliate and torture the detainees committing humane rights violations that included rape, sodomy and murder.

We are all susceptible to “change blindness”

In 1998, researchers from Harvard and Kent university did a study where they had an actor ask a stranger on the street for directions. While asking for directions, they had two people carrying a large wooden door walk between the actor and the subject, completely blocking their view of each other. The actor was then replaced with someone else of a different height, build and voice. Half of the subjects in the experiment didn’t even notice the change!

“Change blindness” suggests that we are very selective when it comes to visual cues and that we rely on memory and pattern-recognition more than we realize. The same study has been repeated many times, including changing a main actor on stage with someone of a different build and voice and half of the audience didn’t realize that the actor had been swapped at all.

Some of us are more susceptible to “change blindness” than others.

Delaying gratification is inherently difficult, but is worth it

This one may seem like a no brainer, but researches in a 1960s Stanford experiment gave pre-school age kids one marshmallow and told them that if they could avoid eating it for 15 minutes while the researcher stepped out, they could have two marshmallows when he returned. Most of the students tried to wait, but struggled and eventually ate the marshmallow. Those who were successful in waiting used avoidance tactics such as turning their back to the marshmallow or covering their eyes.

The children who could delay gratification in the study also turned out less likely to use drugs, become obese or have behavioral problems later as teenagers or adults. The good thing is that delaying gratification is something that can be taught.

We can have strong conflicting moral impulses

In a famous study done in 1961, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram showed just how far people would go to obey authority figures, even if it conflicted with their own morals. Part of the study was to try to understand how so many Nazi war criminals were willing to commit unspeakable horrors during the Holocaust.

In the experiment, one participant was called the “teacher” and the other the “learner”. The teacher was instructed to give an electrick show to the learner, who was in another room, every time they got a question wrong. If the teacher was reluctant to give a shock, he was urged on by the researcher. During the experiment, most participants, even though they were visibly uncomfortable and stressed, administered increasingly painful shocks, all the way up to the final 450-volt shock which was labled “XXX”.

This study was originally considered a study of blind obedience to authority, but recently has been thought of as a study in deep moral conflict, suggesting that many of us, in the right conditions, can be pushed to do things we are uncomfortable doing, even if that means hurting others.

We are corrupted by power

We’ve all known someone, most likely a co-worker, who was one person before they got promoted and then a totally different (not usually for the better) person after they got promoted. Research suggests that when we gain authority or power, we tend to change and not always for the better. Those in power sometimes act with a sense of entitlement and/or disrespect.

Many studies show that even implied positions of power can change the way many people act. “When researchers give people power in scientific experiments, they are more likely to physically touch others in potentially inappropriate ways, to flirt in more direct fashion, to make risky choices and gambles, to make first offers in negotiations, to speak their mind, and to eat cookies like the Cookie Monster, with crumbs all over their chins and chests,” say psychologist Dacher Keltner.

We seek out loyalty to social groups

In a social psychology experiment in the 1950s, an experimenter took two groups of 11 boys, all age 11 to a summer camp. He gave one group the name the “Eagles” and the other the “Rattlers”. They spent a week apart, bonding, having fun with neither group knowing the existence of the other. When he finally brought the two groups together they failed to integrate, instead they stayed in their tight knit groups, began calling each other group names, competing against the other group in various competitions, creating conflict and even refusing to eat together. This is only after each group bonded together for only one week!

This is one reason I disbelieve the thought that if everyone were the same race/color, there would be no racism. There will always be some type of prejudices against groups we perceive as different from us, even if the difference is only in name (the “Eagles” versus the “Rattlers”). It’s just the way humans are wired to bond socially. Even if we all looked alike, we would find something to separate “us” from “them”.

Love is all you really need to be happy

That may sound hokey, but a 75 year Harvard grant study that followed over 250 men around for 75 years suggests that love is all you really need to be happy and satisfied long-term. Psychiatrist George Vaillant, The study’s longtime director says, “One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”

That is for many of us the hard part. We want to be loved, are afraid to love, to hurt or be hurt, therefore we find many, often creative ways to push love away and most of it is subconscious. We end up telling ourselves we don’t need love to be happy and that simply isn’t true. Even if it’s not romantic love, we all need to feel loved even if it’s the endless quest for love or passion for something.

We are always trying to justify our experiences so that they make sense to us

One day I’m going to sit down and write a whole post about cognitive dissonance. It’s such a fascinating topic. What cognitive dissonance says is that we are cognitive-dissonanceconstantly telling ourselves lies to make sense of what is going on around us, especially when what’s going on around us doesn’t make much sense. We want the world to be a logical and harmonious place, which of course often it is not.

An example of cognitive dissonance is someone who smokes, knowing that it is bad for their health, but they justify it by saying that they enjoy it so much that it’s worth the risks, or that it’s not likely they will suffer serious health effects, or that they are going to die of something anyway they might as well enjoy smoking, or that if they quit smoking they will become an irritable, angry person no one wants to be around. So, they continue smoking because it is consistent with their idea about smoking.

Cognitive dissonance is another one of those things that is largely subconscious, but we all do it. We try to make sense of a world that often doesn’t make sense and when we can’t make sense of it we are often put into an uncomfortable, upsetting state of mind. We become unbalance and try to figure out away to become balanced again.

These 8 things are just some of the reasons I love psychology. It unites all of us, while at the same time making each of us different.


Solitude Versus Loneliness

One of the main therapeutic interventions I suggest when working with people is to spend time alone with themselves.

Too often we aren’t just busy with school, work, family and a social life, but overwhelmed and hardly have a second alone with ourselves during the waking hours and are weighed down by stress, anxiety and/or depression.

When we aren’t working, studying, or surrounded by people, we are often thinking about work, studying or the people in our lives. Our minds are always busy and are often filled with thoughts that are either disturbing or distracting.

I especially make this recommendation to people I see aren’t in touch with themselves.

Often these people are fresh out of relationships are are anxious to jump right back into a new one without taking the time to evaluate themselves and their failed relationships so they make the same mistakes over and over again.

If they are lucky they escape unscathed, but more often then not they leave one relationship and enter another with more emotional baggage, lower self-value, more desperation and often an extra child or two.

Often when I suggest to people that they spend some time alone and not rush into another relationship (or surround themselves with people or bury themselves in work, or their family), it’s as if I asked them to do the impossible.

Some will come right out and tell me “I can’t be alone”. Others will say that it’s depressing being alone and others will try it half-heartedly, but are so insecure and fearful that they are easily distracted by whatever takes them away from themselves.

You see, there is a difference between loneliness and solitude. Not many people understand that and easily confuse the two.

Loneliness is a sort of aching, emotional pain, while solitude refers to our relationship with ourselves. Loneliness is painful. Solitude is peaceful.

Solitude is a place where our restless mind, spirit and body can come together and is essential for our spiritual lives.

I at times find solitude difficult and have went through many extremes to avoid it, but I know that solitude can be peaceful, loving and rewarding.

It is the place where if we allow it, by shutting out all the internal noise, we become closer to our true consciousnesses (some spiritual/religious people refer to this as God consciousness where they become closer to God).

This is the place where our subconscious often brings into consciousness our unfinished business, people we should let go, goals we never accomplished, etc.

Some people find it painful to analyze themselves and I get that, but it is essential for growth and internal peace. Many people don’t like to be alone because of this.

It is impossible for someone to be at peace with others and their world if they aren’t at peace with themselves and that can only come from solitude.

Like I said, many people go, go, go, and get into relationship after relationship to distract themselves from themselves in order to avoid some of the pain of having to analyze their true selves.

I encourage you to learn to love solitude. Even when it’s involuntary. Aloneness  can grow into solitude, it’s a conscious choice and it takes some practice, but it’s spiritually and emotionally rewarding.

I don’t care if it’s only an hour, thirty minutes, a walk during your break time, but make time for yourself. Try to shut out all the internal noise and allow your mind, spirit and body to become one. You may be surprised at what you find.

Time by yourself is always time well spent.

“Solitude is the garden for our hearts which yearn for love. It is the place where our aloneness can bear fruit.” Henri J. M. Nouwen; Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings Into One Joyful Step