We know from neuroscience that the brain contains literally trillions of bits of information in a sort of mass storage that is infinitely connectable. In other words, any given bit of information has the potential to connect with any other bit. Not everything does connect, of course. If it did, our lives would be a riot of color, sensations and thoughts with no continuity or governor. This, in fact, may be what happens with certain types of mental illness- the connections get cross-wired to yield associations, feelings and images that are violent and frightening, creating the illusion of threat where none exists.
From birth, we begin to associate these bits and pieces with certain experiences, and we conduct a narrative of our life based on those associations. We begin to build direct neuronal connections between the various bits and pieces in order to make sense of the bits of information. We may, for instance, begin to associate a certain set of sensations, sounds and visual clues with being fed. The narrative becomes, “Mom is coming to feed me.” At some point, I may add another connection that says, “If I cry, Mom will come to feed me,” and I have just learned that I can control this sequence of sensations. But what happens if I cry and Mom doesn’t show up? I continue to experience the unpleasant experience of hunger, and if it happens often enough I may begin to associate and sense of betrayal with my mother. In the same way, when Dad comes home, I know if he smells a certain way, he will be mean to me. Or perhaps I have parents who cater to my every need, and then my narrative might say that I can control my surroundings by simply letting my needs be known. If my parents are very wise, they will help me construct a narrative that makes me feel important and loved without having to expect that I will always get what I want from them.
Whatever narrative we develop, as it solidifies into a repeatable pattern, those associations tend to develop hard-wires connections inside of the brain. The information bit for “mom” develops a direct connection to “food”, “dad” may connect to “baseball”, and so forth. But these associations can develop form a single incident as well. For instance, in your early years you may have had a particularly unfortunate incident with a pile of elephant dung. You may have packed it away into your memory, avoiding conscious contact with it for many years. Then, years later as you are in the middle of an eco-tour in South Africa, you run across a pile of elephant dung and that association come rushing back to you. The association was hard-wired into your brain through direct neural connections established years before.
But these connections can be complex. Bubble exercises and stream-of-consciousness writing can help you to understand the particular connections you have developed, even if you have not unearthed them for many years. For instance, the color blue may take you to the seashore, then wave, then huge waves, then tropical storms, and all of a sudden you are reliving a near-drowning incident. In fact, you might simply experience terror when you see a particular shade of blue. Your subconscious associations may take over to cause a reaction of terror, even if the drowning incident never rises to the attention of your conscious mind. Suppression of unpleasant associations can be very difficult to reverse, which is one reason psychologists are in such demand.
But though it is difficult, unearthing neural connections and creating new ones is not impossible. The brain is neuroplastic, meaning that, unlike a computer, these connections and associations can actually change. Our conscious mind can change our subconscious mind. If you can unearth these connections, bring them to conscious awareness, then by deliberate conscious effort over time, your brain can actually be rewired to sever unwanted associations and create more positive associations. This is the reason psychotherapy works. It is also the reason that meditation and mindfulness practice, sustained over time, can create significant changes in the way the brain functions. And by changing the associations in the brain, perception and behavior can change as well.
In the case of perception, the example of Daniel Kish is particularly instructive. This is a man who was born blind, and who lives a very active life that includes hiking and mountain biking. He “sees” through echolocation by making clicking sounds with his tongue and using the echoes he hear to determine the location and types of objects around him. And he has taught this technique to blind children around the world. But it is not a technique restricted to the blind. Some sighted people have learned a form of this technique as well. This is an example of actually rewiring the brain through conscious effort, so that the visual cortex of the brain can process auditory signals from the ears to form an image of surrounding objects. Another form of conscious rewiring is through sports training. Through a combination of physical repetition and positive association, it is possible to train your body and mind in order to allow you to excel in your chosen sport.
You can also transform the way you react to situations by consciously changing your unconscious associations. Let’s say that you have a relatively nerve-jangling commute to work. Every day, cars fight for position and cut each other off in a mad rush to get to where they are going. We tend to think of these vehicles as machines controlled by faceless beings that are simply out to get in our way. But if you can put a face on them and develop some sort of compassion for them, your commute will actually become more enjoyable. You can think of them as your friends and neighbors- the fellow you play baseball with, the couple you shared drinks and friendly conversation with last night. They are not out to get you, they are simply trying to get to work. This woman has a sick husband or child, this one is harried from trying to juggle two jobs to make end meet, this one is worried about finishing the report that needs to go out today, and so is paying less attention to his driving that he should.
You can choose to build your own consciousness. Although it is not easy, and not instantaneous, consistent and continued effort will not only release some of the stress and dissatisfaction you feel today, it will actually change the structural connections within your brain to make you more conscious of your surroundings. You cannot change you past, but you can change your relationship to it, and to the future you want to have.