Because attitudes can play such an important role in the direction of our lives, and also our personal stress management, it is important to understand how they influence our everyday behaviour.
Professor John Young, a distinguished scholar who was described by The New York Times as one of the “world’s greatest living biologists”, wrote an excellent book titled Programs of the Brain.
Professor Young believed that much of our everyday behaviour is stored in the brain in “modules” or, as he referred to them “programs“.
“The brain operates in certain organised ways that may be described as programs“, wrote Young, “and the actions of these programs constitute the entity that we call the mind of a person“.
Some of these programs are written into our genes. The program that runs the subtle and not so so subtle orchestrations of reproductive activity is a gene-based program but also one shaped by environmental influences.
Programs that switch on aggression are very ancient programs and when they run a vast repertoire of facial expressions and body language are released.
Many of the programs in the brain are written through learning.
The Car Driving Program
One of the most obvious ones is the program for “driving a car“. When you were learning to drive a car you were very conscious of the specific processes that were required to perform this task.
Initially you had to search for the clutch, get the feel of depressing the clutch, coordinate this activity with the gear levers and so on.
Many of these actions were performed clumsily and occasionally with considerable personal embarrassment!.
However, in a relatively short period of time you mastered these skills. At some point in this learning experience your skills had reached the stage where you were able to drive the car without conscious awareness of many of the details, such as depressing the clutch etc.
The “car-diving program” was stored subconsciously and was switched on whenever you set out on a journey.
The main difference between the conscious learning process and the subconscious program is that the subconscious program seems to run with greater efficiency and smoothness than the stumbling, bumbling stage in which you were probably apt to “kangaroo” the car through the neighbourhood.
“To me it is significant”, wrote Young, “that all organisms by virtue of their past history must make selections from sets of possible courses of action.”
This astute observation by Young begs the question of whether the choices are conscious or unconscious. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.
Beware of the Early Morning Programs
Let’s consider how this might work. You get up in the morning feeling jaded and peeved from a poor night’s sleep. You stumble over the cat while bringing in the milk and burn the toast. These experiences cause you to say to yourself “…it’s just going to be one of those days!“.
So what happens now? It could well be argued that the brain will switch on all the programs that run in accordance with the “one-of-those days” attitude.
The “feeling cranky” program is turned on and coupled with the “slight feeling of nausea” program with a spot of depression and a feeling of tightness in the back of the neck and a definitely sense of being stressed out.
So you head out to work with all of programs running and, as you expected it is “one of those days“.
Fortunately sleep tends to turn them off again and tomorrow could be a “great day” with all the “great day” programs switched on.
Calcification of Attitude
Because many of our behaviors and attitudes are deeply entrenched we can fall victim to habits that arise through a calcification of attitude.
Just as hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) can be a precursor of a heart attack, so hardening of attitudes can lead to prejudice and bigotry.
It is very easy to develop mind-sets about people so whenever we encounter them a “program” runs to give us stressful feelings and tension while we are their presence.
Unfortunately this can even happen with people who are near and dear to us.
It doesn’t take a lot of mental energy to run the “my teenage son/daughter is a pain in the butt” program with all the negatives that cluster about that attitude. That mind-set, if mismanaged, can rob us of years of enjoyment with our children.
Controlling those programs of the mind can be a major step in building stress toughness and increasing joie di vie.