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How your brain plays tricks on you

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Imagine walking down a dim alley. Some light is filtering in, but it’s dark enough that your nerves are on high alert. Suddenly, at the other end of the alley, you see a large, menacing shadow appear on a wall. You stand up straight and alert, and freeze. The shadow lurches and grows, and you prepare yourself to confront what is actually casting that shadow. It grows bigger, something’s getting closer… and then a sweet, old, hobbling lady is revealed, and you let out a sigh of relief. 

This scenario is comparable to what your brain does when it tries to interpret factual circumstances. Once of the biggest jobs of your brain is to try and make sense of all the information flying at it in any given moment. And it’s important to know that in order for your brain to interpret things quickly, it has to pull up information from past experience.

When your brain does this, it creates what I call shadow circumstances. Your brain will start to feed you possibilities before you actually know all the facts (like assuming the scary shadow was being cast be something harmful).


The ability of the human brain to create these shadow circumstances and project future possibilities has been pivotal to our growth and survival. But it also plays a key role in overloading the nervous system, and degrading mental health if it gets out of control. There are so many circumstances for the brain to react to now. Not that the earth hasn’t always been a busy place, but because of our massively creative minds we’ve created such a hive of activity (in the real and virtual worlds) that our poor brains are seeing too many shadows to process, which means our brains start playing tricks on us.

Here’s one way to visually think about this happening: large, looming shadows usually require some light being cast upwards. The lower the light, the higher the shadow. Applying this to your brain, the lower portions of the brain (think from your eyeballs down) are the parts that are associated with simple survival. That’s the part of the brain that’s highly reactionary. So just like a low light, the low brain is responsible for casting shadows.

Now the uppermost part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex (which by the way is the most recently evolved part of your brain) is responsible for objective discernment. This is the part of your brain that doesn’t jump to conclusions about the shadows. It exercises curiosity and open-minded thinking, and the ability to see circumstances for what they truly are. This is comparable to a bright light shining from above, fully illuminating what is casting the shadow. So just like a bright, overhead light, the high brain is responsible for dispelling the shadows.

Learning how to dispel those shadows isn’t difficult, but the difficulty comes in sticking to the simple exercises that keep your cortex active. These are things like mindfulness, meditation, and even PQ reps (which I teach).

As a coach this is something I am great at helping people do. My 13 week program will teach you how to train your cortex to override your lower brain (rather than the other way around), so you can illuminate all the shadows. Interested? Click here to schedule a time to chat.

Featured photo credit.

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