Francis Xavier reportedly once said, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” According to many scientists, this outcome is the result of neural hard wiring that occurs in the first few years of life and is directed both by the child’s genes (nature) and experiences (nurture). But a fresh look suggests the unconscious mind is involved and the result is by no means hard-wired.
In a seminal paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Bargh and Morsella argue that in nature, the unconscious mind is the causal force behind most, if not all, human behavior.
Bruce Lipton, a former medical school professor, explores this concept further in his bestseller, The Biology of Belief. He explains the unconscious mind is the product of our experiences from the first six years of life; a time when parents, teachers and peers hold influence by delivering information we download as truths, even if the ‘truth’ is unhelpful or just plain wrong.
Unconscious beliefs can be unhelpful
Many of these ‘programs’ are societal (our Government creates laws that are fair to all and keep us safe), cultural (terrorism is born of another person’s religion), or familial (Dad left us, I come from a broken home). And during these formative years we begin to see the emergence of programs unique to individual experience, which often encode limiting beliefs such as: I’m not smart enough, I’m not good enough, I’m bad, what’s the point I’ll only fail, I’m on my own, uncertainty is unsafe, I can’t handle losing what I cherish, it’s a hostile universe, we are all alone…
Childhood experiences create lifelong impressions, beliefs and behaviors that become fluidly entrenched in our biology
According to Lipton, childhood experiences create lifelong impressions, beliefs and behaviors that become fluidly entrenched in the biology of the 70+ trillion cells we humans comprise. Each cell is a programmable interface, capable of receiving, storing and sending information, and collectively contributes to the unconscious state we can define as personhood. Conflict in our personhood arises when our conscious choices are in discord with our unconscious programs.
Taking the idea of positive thinking as an example, a person with cancer might say, “I’m sick with this cancer, but I’m going to heal.” But to Lipton and a growing number of researchers, no amount of positive thinking will influence the outcome if the unconscious mind disagrees.
And the reason for the disagreement? A simple program that tells us when we’re sick, we give up any responsibility for our wellbeing to medical science. Another program we might have is the truth we automatically assign to an expert’s testimony. “Fifty percent of patients are alive after five years” is an important statement depending on whether your unconscious program is a glass half-full or a glass half-empty.
How to change your unconscious programs
The good news is we can change our unconscious programs. As a place to start, we might think of an intrusive thought, an embarrassing memory, a fear, an angry outburst, or a feeling of hopelessness. These situations are typical of the beliefs we might hold about ourselves, born of past experiences and informed by our early programming. It’s not always easy, but it is a matter of changing our mind.
My personal favourite for doing this is using Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT; acupressure added to a healthy dose of self acceptance), but this might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Another way might be to imagine an outcome you do want, apply real feeling to this, and then act as if it is already true.
If you want to learn more about EFT, check out this 5-minute video to help you get started.
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