So before we dive into the specifics of actual mental practices, we should probably get to know what we are dealing with. I’ll try my best to tell you about my current understandings and musings about the mind. I’ve come to know this through psychology courses, several books on dreams, forums, many websites, and, of course, Dr. Mom. ;)
I’ll focus on several key concepts: the conscious and subconscious mind, the plasticity of the mind, and the mental model.
The conscious and subconscious mind is the idea that we have a portion of our mind that runs in the background and we don’t have direct control over it. The conscious mind consists of your thoughts that you actively create. For instance when you solve a math problem or are imagining a story, you are using your conscious mind.
The subconscious mind consists of things in our mind that seem to just happen. For our purposes, the main aspect of interest is its ability to generate thoughts and to fill in the blanks. Sometimes a sound causes us to think of a seemingly totally unrelated event or as we are trying to fall asleep random thoughts may jump into our minds. The subconscious is making connections unknown to us and serving up thoughts to our conscious mind, even though we didn’t tell it to! The other important aspect of the subconscious, especially when talking about dreams, is its ability to fill in the blanks. When you dream, you don’t typically have to set the color and shape of everything; it just happens for you. If you close your eyes and imagine a puppy, you don’t have to put in conscious effort to fill in every single hair on the animal. In this case we are sending a conscious command to the subconscious and it is serving up what we want to see.
This leads nicely into the idea of mental plasticity. When describing the subconscious mind I commented on some instances where the subconscious was out of our control and some instances where it was in our control. You can think of the subconscious mind as an artist eager to serve up a new idea or painting at any moment. A mere sound can cause them to begin a new project, but they can also be told to do something else.
Luckily for us, we can actually impact what the artist likes to do. This is mental plasticity; the ability to change how our minds react. Typically mental plasticity is referred to as a process that naturally happens over time, but we can also consciously take advantage of it. Through different mental practices we can mold our artist to behave in a way much more to our liking.
The mental model is the fact that we take in all of our sensory data (touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound) and then we filter a ton out of it. Only a small portion of what we consider reality actually reaches the brain at all! Our ears, for instance, are tuned to only a very small range of sound. What does reach our mind is processed on many different levels. We can spot familiar patterns (related to the plasticity of the mind) much faster than a random one. Our subconscious mind then takes the small portion of “reality” that it got and paints its best guess at what is out there.
This is the source of illusions. A famous one is the necker cube: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necker_Cube. Your mind takes in those couple of lines and tries its best to reconstruct them into something meaningful. Much of this is done on a subconscious level. I don’t normally have to actively try to make sense of what I see. The big key here is that what we are actually “seeing” is only a representation of what we call reality. Well, if it is all in our head, why don’t we just change it? Being as young as you are, you are in a much better position to do this. You play imagination all the time and while we “old” ones may see a plastic toy horse, you can see a great stallion.
An important concept to add here, although not directly related to dream control, is that we can play this game with emotions as well as with perception. This is related to using the plasticity of our mind to change the artists attitude. Associating a happy feeling with a hug and a sad feeling with being in the dark isn’t a necessity. There are several games we can play with our minds to teach it what to associate with different things.
A famous case of this conditioning was called the little Albert experiments: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Albert_experiment. In this experiment the baby was given an animal to hold and pet, then a loud noise was made to startle the baby. After doing this repeatedly, the baby’s mind learned that when he held the animal, he got scared (even though what was actually scary was the sound). Then when the baby was shown the animal he would get scared even though there was no reason to be. This is how many phobias (that means something you are afraid of) gets started. We can also do this in reverse and teach our minds not to stop being afraid.
Next time I’ll try to cover how we can take these principles and use them to take better control over our minds.