The Chaos Train

An article by Eliza Burdon.

I had a client recently (Eliza) who started to talk about the experience of panic as a seemingly uncontrollable journey. I liked that idea very much and we started to call it The Chaos Train. I asked her to write an article about it as it seemed such a useful idea.

The train stops at stations on its journey to the hub. Along the way it picks up passengers and freight, (burdens to take to the hub) as each hub is reached the burdens are delivered and the result of them expressed. In the case of this particular Chaos Train they are panic, anxiety and sadness.

I think the fascinating insight Eliza had was that it all felt really chaotic and out of control. Of course it feels like that because it is panic but it is not as chaotic as it feels. The train has to stop at the stations on the way to the hub and pick up burdens otherwise there is nothing to take to the hub and nothing to be expressed. By making choices and deliberately not stopping at the stations on the route Eliza places a structure on her sense of chaos. She fights the darkness and despair and she makes a journey she wants to make not the default journey her Chaos Train may make if left to its own devices. Here is Eliza’s article.

The Chaos Train

All aboard the Chaos Train, final destination Anxiety. All change for Sadness and Depression.

Living in a continuous state of anxiety is chaotic. Panic is predictably unpredictable. We seem to have no idea of when it will strike and yet somehow it is always a certainty that it will. When the panic finally loosens its grip on us, whether that means a panic attack has passed or a stressful phase has ended, we can’t find a reason for it happening in the first place. Our minds will tell us there is no reason, leading us to simply “accept” how chaotic and unpredictable our anxiety is. We lose faith in our bodies and lose sight of how we’re ever going to get better because we can’t ever establish a reason for our behaviours.


As you pass through the stations you pick up baggage.

As you pass through the stations you pick up baggage.

The truth is it’s not all that chaotic. Anxiety and the resulting sadness and depression comes as the final culmination of a series of bad behaviours and disordered thinking. The chaos we feel we’re living in is a symptom of our anxiety taking hold of our lives, and accepting that it is that way allows it to act up if and when it pleases. Last time you did this was a Friday and today is a Tuesday? Here’s a panic attack for you. Last time you were here you wore red and now you’re wearing blue? Panic attack for you. Nothing seems all that different? Have a panic attack anyway. Your anxious mind can sense any difference in a situation, and all the chaotic steps you’ve taken to allow anxiety into your life add together to produce what feels like a very unpredictable fear response to just about anything. Yet, in reality, it is entirely predictable, it’s going to happen because you’ve accepted the idea that it’s out of your own control.

The Chaos Train is the journey you take to those major hubs, Anxiety and Depression. At each stop on the way you collect more and more behaviours and beliefs that lead to full blown anxiety disorders and predictably unpredictable panic. Each one is an essential element, they work together to seize control of your mind and create chaos.

It looks a little like this, though each persons individual stops may differ.

Other stops could include inflexibility, a lack of willingness to try things out of your comfort zone or things which are not part of your usual routine will lead to anxiety and panic. Similarly being concerned that other people will judge you. Catastrophising is a major cause of both anxiety and sadness. Catastrophising means allowing your thoughts to run away from you, and believing in only the worst case scenarios. This could be that you won’t be able to cope and you’ll have a panic attack, or that you’ll never get better.

It’s simple to build up to the “Hubs”, a series of faulty thoughts and feelings of being out of control leads to panic fairly quickly. On the other hand, breaking it back down isn’t quite so easy. It’s a slow moving train back to where you started. The best way to approach it is to break it down, cutting one station out at a time. For example, if you can combat catastrophising, you’re less likely to believe in the worst case scenario becoming a reality. With a little more faith, seeing events more realistically instead of living in a fantasy world where everything goes wrong, you would be opened up to a whole new level of freedom. In the same way, combating each station on the Chaos Train journey one step at a time, picking up a little less baggage at each stop, your anxiety would have so much less control over you, and in that, the chaos would dissolve.

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How to improve your flexibility and resilience

November 27, 2013 by  
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Have you ever wondered how to improve your flexibility? What does flexibility mean? I’m not just talking about physical flexibility but your emotional and cognitive flexibility too.

I believe you should work on building your flexibility and resilience before you really need them and here’s a good illustration of why.

Amy Purdy wanted to escape, see the world and create a life story of adventure.

When I heard the story of this remarkable young woman I felt the emotion well up inside me. I think you will too. But this is not only an inspirational story. It is also a lesson for life because it illustrates the power of flexibility and resilience.

Stick with the video to the end and I defy you not to feel the emotions welling up with pride felt in overcoming obstacles and achieving something great. Let me know what you think.

How to improve your flexibility: It’s what you do with it

I often tell clients that it is not what happens to you that matters it is what you do with it. What I mean by this is that you can rely on life to turn up issues, problems, blocks, barriers, limits and occasionally disasters. That is life! But what are you going to do with these life events when they happen to you?

When something bad happens it is a shock and sometimes it takes a while to recover from the initial shock. You will see that with Amy. After that what you do defines whether your life will be changed in a negative way or in a positive way.  You have an (often untapped) element of choice and control in how you respond any event.

The most beneficial response you can make to almost any event has within it flexibility and resilience. You may have heard me tell the story of the palm tree on the beach after a tidal wave has gone through. The palm is flexible and bends with the force of the water but springs back afterwards.



This image captures the two most important aspects of reacting as well as you can to life’s problems. Be flexible and bend with the force and then remember that you are the same no matter what happens. Nothing that happens to you can take away your personal value, self worth and power. These give you resilience.

Learn how to improve your flexibility and resilience: Flexibility exercises for men and women

Physical flexibility

Take exercise. Simple.


Emotional flexibility

Practice recognising that feelings are fleeting reactions to events and don’t always mean very much. Furthermore feelings are usually created by your interpretation of the meaning of something that has happened. Some of the time this interpretation is wrong, hence the emotion does not accurately reflect what has happened to you.  When we consider depression and anxiety we can see that interpretations are often wrong and unhelpful.

Cognitive flexibility

Make an effort to see the other person’s point of view, consider alternatives and learn to recognise that your response to any situation is only one of a number of possible responses you could make. This is always true but mostly goes unnoticed.

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What is quality of life and how do I get it?

September 13, 2013 by  
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What is quality of life?

Do you ever take time to ponder those big seemingly unanswerable questions? When we’re busy, working hard and getting on with our lives it’s very easy to become immersed in the process of life as it is lived. But the question is; does this automatically lead to the quality of life we could potentially achieve?

What is quality of life
Does the ‘nose to the grindstone’ ‘get on with it’ attitude automatically yield a quality of life that ‘seems’ really worth having? Of course the alternative is ‘no quality of life’ and that is not a very good option.

But maybe we could have more quality and therefore more intensity and satisfaction from life. So my answer to the, ‘What is quality of life?’ question is this: Satisfaction, meaningful engagement and happiness. I think these when achieved will bring quality of life. It is a short list but each one is a dimension that can be allied to every area of your life.

  • Satisfaction with relationships, work hobbies and overall life direction
  • Meaningful engagement with interests, projects, people and your future
  • Happiness with yourself in all of the areas above!

What is quality of life? The examined life

So what is quality of life? A wise man (Plato) once said, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and maybe that is one of the keys to achieving a ‘quality of life’ that is able to give a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Carry out a quality of life assessment. What might an examined life look like? What do we mean by examined anyway? It sounds faintly medical.

There is always a tension in life between going with the flow, which is relying on automatic processes or paying conscious attention to what is happening. Neither of these opposite processes has the monopoly on good outcomes. As an example of where automatic behaviour is definitely desirable think about how hard it was to learn to write as a child. At first it was very difficult but as you practised your writing skills you started to feel more comfortable, then it felt repetitious and boring and then it all seemed automatically easy.

What is quality of life - writing
Now you write almost entirely without conscious attention. Long passages can be written and you hardly know what you wrote. And curiously it is this very automaticity that makes you a good writer. And that is how it should be, the process of writing is only a tool to convey your thoughts and intentions. The tool should never take precedent over the purpose.

Your brain simply cannot think about writing while also composing meaningful sentences. Try writing your signature consciously. It is pretty hard! Most ongoing and complex that we commonly perform are relegated to automatic systems. These automatic systems can make decisions faster and more accurately that we can and that leaves us head space for more complex thoughts. But the very power of these automatic processes can be our biggest enemy in the struggle to achieve a good quality of life.

What is quality of life? Giving up bad habits

Trying to give up habits like smoking, drinking, drugs, or some less conditioned behavioural habits is very hard indeed, and maybe impossible unless you bring conscious awareness to the task. To rely on hope that things will change because you ‘want them to’ is tantamount to giving up on the attempt.

What is quality of life - bad habits

That is one reason giving up smoking is so hard. It is difficult to keep re-focusing your attention on the task, but that is what is needed to make any real progress. When attention goes back to sleep then the smokers mind jumps in to fill the gap. When you are struggling to challenge negative thoughts, or trying to ‘stamp on ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) it is really hard to keep focused on the task when the requirements of life keep intruding into your head space.

As a general principle it is very hard to learn anything new and stick with it unless an amount of focused conscious attention can be devoted to the task. This brings us to the third element in the drive to have a good quality of life: motivation.

What is quality of life? Motivation

Motivation to achieve anything is a very fickle mistress. One moment we are motivated to do something, half an hour later we are not. Motivation waxes and wanes depending upon the amount of attention we give it. Another wise man (G.I.Gurdjieff) once hypothesised that we had a number of personalities within us each called an ‘I’.

It works something like this: I want to give up drinking. Later on, I want a drink; or I want to give up self criticism.  Later on I am stupid. Each time we think or say ‘I’ we are identifying with the desire that the little ‘I’ is expressing. It can seem very confusing until we remember that no animal that is not trained can be expected to behave as expected.

Likewise our habits if not trained are not going to behave as we might want them to. The task therefore is to train them in a structured and sensible way that moves us closer and closer to that sought after quality of life.

What is quality of life? Bargain

Training takes effort and without an effort little can be achieved. This is where ‘The bargain’ kicks in. The bargain is what you decide, in a rational moment, is your goal in life. Without a goal it is hard to know what to do next.

With a goal many if not most things are achievable. A bargain has two parts; what you want and what you are prepared to do for it.

Your goals are what you want and the sacrifice is what you are prepared to do to get it. Many people can manage the first part but stall on the second because they may not know what they have to do and lack the support needed to get there.

There is no law that states you have to do all of this yourself. If you have a friend interested in these kinds of things they might want to help or you could help each other. Form a team and work towards each of your goals.

What is quality of life? Environment

The environment is rich in textures, sounds, movements and objects. Each of these elements can be made to help you or hinder you. Imagine that any external element in your life could be associated with an internal goal, desired mental state and motivation.

What is quality of life - environment
Going into a pub may make you feel like a cigarette and a drink, going into your kitchen make you feel like eating, looking in the mirror at your own image may make you feel self doubt, looking at a toilet will make you feel like you have to go! All of these feelings can be attached to outside stimuli.

When searching for the answer to, ‘What is quality of life,’ spend some time learning to recognise where your conditioned attachments are located and feel the pull of motivation as you enter each one. And if you really want to experience the force of these environmental elements, then try to resist for a while before giving into the desire to satisfy the urge they create.

It can be quite fascinating to observe the many ways the world robs you of personal control. The smallest amount of attention given to observation is time well spent as only through conscious effort can we master the process of achieving our goals and achieving a quality way of life.

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Why you should take more care of yourself

May 15, 2013 by  
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If you don’t take care of yourself you may find you are uncared for!

 Self Care

Looking after yourself is not a sin and it is not being selfish nor is it making yourself more important than the people you love and care about. Self care is simply taking what you need so you can continue to function to the benefit of everyone in your world.

This video film talks about three important self care issues that are always coming to the fore in therapy sessions.

1. It seems that a lot of people think that being tough is the same as being efficient and effective. I don’t think it is.  Being efficient and effective is a flexible approach that takes into account the actuality of the world and your own context. Being tough is just being tough even if is may not be the right approach. I call being tough, irrespective of what is happening, to an Oak Tree Solution.

2. Being tough is often hard, a simpler way of doing things may be to recognise you have value and as such you deserve as much care and attention as anyone else in your world. That is just a fact. Failing to recognise or acknowledge this fact is just burying your head in the sand. You can do it but you get sand in your hair.

3. People do not value what is so freely given. If you give without concern for yourself then people will come to expect it and will not value it. They will assume you don’t value your time so they won’t either. This is the sting in the tail of giving without self care. It is often motivated by love and concern but creates resentment and distress.

Value yourself and know that you matter. Give of yourself because you want to not because you have to, that makes your giving a conscious choice not an automatic habit that is hardly acknowledged.

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Attacking anxiety and depression: Correcting faulty thinking part 5

April 24, 2013 by  
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Conclusion Jumping

This is the final article in our attacking anxiety and depression: correcting faulty thinking series which has so far looked at how the brain works and thinking develops, how and why your brain makes errors and the consequences of faulty thinking, and how the depressed brain makes more errors than normal.

Any time you draw a conclusion, make a decision, statement, judgment or interpretation that is ‘black or white’, ‘all or nothing’ or that is ‘overly negative’, even ‘catastrophic’ and thereby leads to you feeling down, can be labelled as Conclusion Jumping.

This can be likened to looking down a telescope or tube at something. When you do this you only ever see a fraction of what could be seen. Conclusion Jumping limits your available options because it prevents you from perceiving everything that is really out there.

Examples of Conclusion Jumping are:

  • If I am not the best, I am a failure.
  • I have to do everything to the best of my ability, or there is no point   in even trying.
  • People never change
  • Life is ruined
  • Men/Women are all the same
  • If I cannot change by tomorrow there is no point in trying
  • Really creative people do not need to try very hard
  • If I do not get this job, that is it, I will never work again
  • Nothing can help me
  • I might have died, next time I will
  • You are my friend or you are my enemy

Attacking anxiety and depression: Talking Down

When you think or speak of yourself or other people in a negative way, when you use should or must as absolute instructions or when you use emotions as a guide to reality, then that is ‘Talking Down’.

Using language in any way that detracts from your worth or the worth of someone else is an example of ‘Talking Down’. Talking Down is very damaging to your well being.

Once Talking Down starts it rapidly establishes itself as an automatic habit pattern that pervades every aspect of your mental activity.

Examples of ‘Talking Down’ are:

  • I should be a better father
  • I should be well by now
  • I am ugly
  • I am not worth anything
  • People like that are useless
  • I do not matter
  • I am failing as a mother
  • I should not let it all get to me as much as it does

Attacking anxiety and depression: Why it is worth challenging faulty thinking

In general the fact that the brain uses short cuts to reduce energy and processing time is not the problem, most of the time your brain gets it more or less right.

Nevertheless, errors do happen and it is when you do not recognise or challenge the errors that they quickly become automatic. This is when short cut errors lead to faulty thinking. Faulty thinking is a major factor in the development and maintenance of all psychological problems and especially in depression.

If you put effort into recognising and challenging faulty thinking you gain a valuable tool for taking control over your low mood. For this to happen it is necessary to turn automatic processes once again into conscious processes. This requires practise and constant attention on what you think, say and do, coupled with a willingness to recognise that some brain processes will need to be re-trained to ensure your well being.

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Attacking anxiety and depression: Correcting faulty thinking part 4

April 22, 2013 by  
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The depressed brain makes more errors

The attacking anxiety and depression: correcting faulty thinking series has so far looked at how the brain works and thinking develops, how and why your brain makes errors and the consequences of faulty thinking. In part four we’re going to look at how the depressed brain makes more errors than normal.

Much of our understanding of Active Self Help for depression and anxiety  is derived from research showing that people who suffer from depression make many more shortcut errors.

This research has shown that when mood is low the brain recognises negative sounding words such as (gloom, sad, pain) faster than positive words such as (happy, glad, smile). This demonstrable fact has been shown time and time again.

This illustrates that the brain of a depressed person has learned to accept depressing information into the system more readily than positive information. This is one of the damaging things that acts to keep your mood low.

The most damaging aspect of shortcut errors is that when you generate your own negative thoughts about yourself, they are not usually recognised as short cut errors and are processed faster than other kinds of thoughts.

The sheer repetition of your negative thoughts about yourself has turned them into Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). They were originally created as shortcut errors but now are out of your conscious control. They are automatic and because of this are deadly.

Attacking anxiety and depression:  The summary so far

  • Your brain constantly works to understand the world
  • Your senses take in information from the surrounding world and pass that information to your brain
  • Your brain interprets this information in habitual ways (short cuts), saving time and energy
  • Brain short cuts that go wrong can lead to the wrong understanding or interpretation of events
  • Negative thoughts are always a consequence of faulty thinking
  • Shortcut errors quickly become automatic

Attacking anxiety and depression:   How you can recognize shortcut errors

Here are some pointers you can learn that always indicate brain shortcut errors have happened. Shortcut errors always:

  • Lead to inaccurate negative thoughts
  • Distort reality
  • Lead to you to feeling negative about yourself
  • Lead to self destructive thinking

If you ever experience any of these kinds of problems, you can be quite sure that a short cut error has triggered faulty thinking. If a program on your home computer were working badly you would take one of a number of steps to rectify the problem. You must now start to rectify the shortcut errors that are causing your brain to constantly lead you into faulty thinking.

There are three classes of faulty thinking that we would like you to become aware of. We have labeled these as Mind reading, Conclusion Jumping and Talking Down. Here are some examples. We will also give you a training task to give you practice recognising these faulty thinking errors.

Attacking anxiety and depression:  Mindreading

Mindreading is very damaging because it leads you to assume you know something that you could not possibly know. It leads you act as if you have a mind reader’s crystal ball; to believe you can see into the mind and know the intentions of another person without any words at all being spoken. Below are examples of Mindreading:

  • He/she thinks I am a failure;
  • Everyone can see how stressed I am;
  • If I talk to him/her they will see right through me;
  • They know I am a fraud;
  • People can see I am useless;
  • If I attempt it everyone will see how nervous I am;
  • I am an open book.

You know Mindreading is happening if: you believe you know something you could not possibly know.

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Attacking anxiety and depression: Correcting faulty thinking part 3

April 19, 2013 by  
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The consequences of faulty thinking

So far in the attacking anxiety and depression: correcting faulty thinking series we’ve looked at how the brain works and thinking develops and how and why your brain makes errors. In part three I’d like to focus on the consequences of faulty thinking – how this affects you.


Attacking anxiety and depression:  What are the consequences of faulty thinking?

When the short cuts your brain makes go wrong, you are left with the wrong interpretation or understanding of something. Imagine the experience of seeing someone from behind, being convinced it is someone you know.

You tap them on the shoulder and it turns out to be a stranger. That is an example of a short cut error that could be called faulty thinking. In this example you jumped to a conclusion without enough information to be fully sure you knew the person. If this has happened to you there is not likely any harm done, it was a mistake.

Sadly, many human error disasters and accidents can be wholly attributed to short cut errors. The human brain often misjudges the distances between things, miscalculates the speed of something, hears what it expects to hear and interprets something in an habitual way.

In fact it jumps to conclusions,  it sees what it expects to see, it hears what it expects to hear and is imagines things that have not happened. All of these are based on scanty information and the application of rules that are no longer valid.

Sometimes faulty thinking can have catastrophic effects. And the same principles that underlie the faulty thinking in disaster or accident situations also happen in everyday life and can lead to very serious problems;  leaving you dealing with depression and anxiety.

Attacking anxiety and depression:  How faulty thinking creates psychological problems

You are equipped with the ability to be self-critical. Depending upon your life experiences up to this point, your ability to be self critical will be more or less developed. For many people it will be highly developed. But be under no illusion, everyone is critical about themselves to some degree.

If you experience times in your life when you are overloaded, stressed, burdened, confused, tired, unsure or unstable, then your self critical capacity is increased. At the same time your brain is probably working hard to manage the problems you perceive in your life. This is when short cut errors become highly dangerous.


When your brain makes a shortcut error and the outcome is negative, self destructive, depressing or fear inducing, you may not recognize it as a short cut error. You may accept it as a fact. This increases unpleasant negative emotions and depresses your mood further. Remember: if an error has happened once it is more likely to happen again. The next time your brain makes a short cut error you again accept it as fact. And so this continues until the shortcut error is automatic. You no longer question it.

The process can repeat itself many times with many forms of shortcut error. Your job now is to recognize short cut errors and bring them once again under conscious control; because only by bringing them under conscious control can you rectify them.

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Attacking anxiety and depression: Correcting faulty thinking part 2

April 18, 2013 by  
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Brain Processing Errors

In part one of attacking anxiety and depression: correcting faulty thinking I talked to you a little about how your brain works so that you could understand how thinking develops. In part two I’d like to tell about how and why your brain makes errors and what that means for your mental health.


Attacking anxiety and depression: How your brain works

Firstly, I should point out that your brain works very well indeed. However, in any system that has to manage the vast amounts of data your brain does, there will always be the possibility of error. The study of brain processing errors is a whole field of research that helps us better understand how the brain works. Many common errors seem to be the result of the brain using an inappropriate short cut. Which means the brain applies a strategy or rules it has used before thereby not having to fully process something. This leads to what we have called shortcut errors.

Attacking anxiety and depression: Brain short cut errors

The real problem with these errors is not so much that errors exist, but that you do not recognise them as errors.
Remember the effect of learning and repetition which we talked about in part one? Well, if an error occurs and it is not recognised it becomes easier to make the same error again; and after 50 errors it is automatic.

Sometimes this really does not matter very much. Suppose you acquired the habit of never eating green vegetables as a child because you mistakenly believed they were poisonous. It is now automatic. You never eat them. It is probably not going to hurt you much.

But suppose you acquired the habit of thinking of yourself as stupid. If you have thought it 50 times or more it is likely to be automatic. Lack of green vegetables will not stop you from achieving your life goals; thinking of yourself as stupid probably will. Both are examples of shortcut errors we have called faulty thinking.

Attacking anxiety and depression: The Muller Lyer Illusion

muller lyer illusion
Look at this picture. It is called a Muller Lyer illusion. Can you decide which of the horizontal lines is the longer, the one on the left or the one on the right?

This illusion is one of many tools that is used to study brain shortcut errors. Actually the horizontal lines are both the same length. But the way the diagonal lines are arranged fools your brain into thinking that the line on the right is shorter and the line on the left is longer. Feel free to measure them with a ruler is you feel the need.

The fact that your brain can make short cut errors may seem strange to you; if so, you can now see why you may have never corrected the errors. The fact is you would not recognise any thought or belief as an error unless you were shown how to see it in the first place. This is what we will do in part three.

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Attacking anxiety and depression: Correcting faulty thinking

April 17, 2013 by  
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When we’re looking at attacking anxiety and depression we need to focus on correcting our faulty thinking. To do that it’s useful to understand firstly, how your brain works and thinking develops.

Your brain fulfills a huge number of functions that are necessary for life. The majority of these functions are out of your conscious awareness; such as the level of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream, the maintenance of your blood pressure or the process of digestion.

Other functions are mostly out of awareness but can be brought into awareness if you put effort into doing so; such as: chewing food, what it feels like to sit on a seat or how to write your signature. Pervasive and deadly characteristics of depression are often out of conscious awareness, but need to be brought into awareness so that they can be controlled and ultimately changed.

Attacking anxiety and depression: Most brain processes are automatic

It can be quite useful to think of the brain as if it were a computer; if we do that, it is easy to recognize that the brain is the most complex ‘computer’ in existence.

It has the function of processing the raw data that is constantly arriving from your senses. It then has to make sense of this data and, where necessary, organise an appropriate response. Fully 99.9% of brain processes are automatic. For most things you do not need to make any conscious decisions. Your brain just takes care of it.

As examples of complex human activity that are largely automatic, consider how much thought you might typically put into everyday driving to and from work.How much thought you put into an everyday conversation and how much conscious thought is needed to read a newspaper.

Almost everything that you do, say, or think incorporates a large amount of automatic brain processing! It has to. Any computer built by human hand would grind to a halt in moments if it had to do everything that a human brain does, continually for a lifetime without a break. Even sleep is filled with brain activity.

No one likes making the same mistakes over again

One way the brain attempts to cut down on processing need, thereby making processes more efficient, is to avoid repeating things that it has done before. The marvel of the human brain is its raw capacity to learn from experience.

Do something only once and the next time you will find it easier. Do it 10 times and it will be almost automatic. Do it 50 times and you may not even be aware of doing it.

Repetition leads to learning. Learning leads to automation.

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