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Brain Improvement : Why We Need Cognitive Control

Oct 10, 2022

 

What is cognitive control?

 

A simple definition: “Selectively processing information from the environment and using the information to do all kinds of problem solving.”  In the early stages of my brain injury, I actually think this definition undervalues how important cognitive control is to brain function. When you cannot have a flow of thoughts to commit moments to memory, or are confused about the world around you which leads to emotional upset, cognitive control is more than problem solving. Cognitive control impacts all levels of your interactions, relationships, perception and experience of life. 

 

Professor John Jonides of Psychology and Neuroscience at University of Michigan summarised that ‘cognitive control’ underlies all mental ability that includes intelligence (emotional and intellectual), many behaviours and emotions.  

 

Little cognitive control means that you are prone to developing mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, because you let your thoughts control your emotions and behaviours, believing your thoughts as your identity. This is the basis of the ‘Happiness Effect’ where learning to control your thoughts as positive leads to feeling happier. Therefore, learning cognitive control can help you on all levels of functionality.

 

Buddhism is the spiritual teaching closely aligned to this science. Whereby, learning to control one’s thoughts releases the grip of ‘suffering’ so that we can welcome a more compassionate and grateful life, both of which lead to more joy. 

 

How it works:

Using depression as an example in this blog, depression is when someone is consumed with negative thoughts - ruminating on how they wised the past could be different and without hope that the future will be better, but mostly, a lack of appreciating what is in the present moment. The individual does not have cognitive control over these negative thoughts and perceives that they are without the self-empowerment to take control. 

 

It is learning how to control the negative thoughts, and the first step is identifying them as: (a) a thought, and (b) that the thought is negative, (c) then turn the negative thought into a positive thought, and (d) accept that negative thoughts are human nature but are not the person’s identity so that you can let go of the negative thought without berating yourself that you had a negative thought. Retraining the brain out of depression takes time and the discipline of cognitive control. 

 

A key component alongside cognitive control is self-compassion for each negative thought and patience. It takes great grit anf commitment to slowly move away from depression where familiarity often pulls a return. The perception of happiness to the mind is too alien a feeling and the fear deeply embedded in depression of loss will often contribute to relapses. So there is a cycle of patience, kindness to yourself and perserverance to come back to this retraining. 

 

Cognitive control can also be recognising a time limit to think and/or feel something before you accept, let go and move on from thinking about it.  They say that a thought if dwelled on for long enough becomes a belief and if a belief is dwelled on for long enough becomes emotion and engrained; you let that thought to become a part of who you are – so be careful what you think! The first step for cognitive control is learning how to focus attention and avoiding distractions.  Mindfulness exercises train the brain to focus attention and step back from thoughts, to just see them as what they are – thoughts!

 

An important note is to ensure that you make time for negative emotions and thoughts when life is stressful. These experiences must be fully felt and lived through to set free the experience and make space for the learning and wisdom that it brings. If you are having a challenging time, set aside 5-20 minutes each day to truly sit with your feelings and emotions, and safely express them via journals, pillow punching or crying.  

 

Exercise:

  1. Think of one thing that happened in your day (big or small) that you immediately responded to naturally in a negative way.
  2. What thought came into your head when you reacted?
  3. Do you believe that thought as true and/or fact?
  4. How did that thought make you feel?
  5. What other thought could you have had to that event? Hint – make it neutral or positive!
  6. Next time something like today happens, stop & acknowledge your thought then remind yourself of the neutral or positive thought. Allow that neutral or positive thought as much time as the negative thought before you move on.

 

 

First published www.nidsnogginfix.com on April 2014

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