How our environment shapes our thinking
As we experience different stimuli from our external world, all the sensory data the brain and the mind are processing causes a host of different mindful internal representations of what is in our external world.
This allows us to recognize everything we could possibly know in our external environment.
On a daily basis, the bombardment of various sensory information activates the circuits in our brain to think equal to our encounters with our immediate environment.
In other words, the environment is making us think.
Let’s say you decide to take your lunch in the corner of a nearby city cafe, alone. As you are sitting there, you notice a man who reminds you of your college roommate’s boyfriend.
He has the same blocky jaw, mahogany brown eyes, and one untamed lock of curly beard that outlines across his chin.
Suddenly, you’re not in that park anymore eating an egg salad sandwich. You’re back at DV8, a university kids bar, and the smell of stale beer, cigarette smoke, and Charlie perfume all hang heavy in the air.
The sunlight through the bar’s smudged window casts your roommate in silhouette, and you can only make out her features when her bell beer glass glows orange and illuminates her mascara-stained face.
She caught her boyfriend sitting in the stairwell of their hostel building the night before, drinking and laughing with another girl. That jerk.
You shake your head sadly, still angry that he could have hurt your friend like that.
Then you think of your last lover, how he unceremoniously dumped you one day out of the blue. Two days later, you saw him walking arm in arm with another woman. You felt like someone had sliced through your stomach and all of your insides spilled out onto the sidewalk.
Suddenly, you’re back to sitting in JC’s, and it feels like someone is pressing his full weight against your back and shoulders.
What’s the use in sitting out here even on a nice day like this one? Nothing’s going to change. You’re always going to be the one sitting alone.
What had started as a pleasant lunchtime diversion descends into a recital of the automatic, unconscious, routine, familiar, common, habitual thoughts that plague you. You’re cursed. You ruin every relationship. Men are so unreliable.
How you got from point A (seeing someone who reminded you of someone else) to point B (feeling unloved and unworthy) is a journey that many people take on a daily basis.
One of the key words to consider here is “reminded.”
If you think carefully about this word in the context of the example of seeing a person who looked like someone from your past, you can see that you originally had in “mind” an entire complex of events related to people and things at a specific time and place tied to that original image.
All it took was a simple nudge for this complex of beliefs, memories, and associations to be called up as a stream of consciousness that the brain produced.
That neural net is always ready and at our disposal; it is one of the easy, common, natural, familiar modes of thinking to which we have instant access.
If you want healthy thoughts, choose your environments wisely.