Consciousness, operating systems, and why we struggle with change – Part 1

We often like to think of the human brain as analogous to computer hardware, with the mind or consciousness as the software or operating system. It’s by no means a perfect analogy (in reality, the whole system is insanely complex and works a bit more like mushware – the hardware directly affects the software and vice versa)… But it’s actually a very useful analogy for understanding why we struggle with change, and why we get stuck in certain ways of thinking and acting, especially when those thoughts and behaviours are counterproductive, or even destructive.

Bear with me… If we use the hardware, operating system/software analogy, we need to add a third notion – the files that run on the hardware-software platform. Call these thoughts, cognitions, concepts, or interpretations of experience. With our Mac or PC, to open a particular file type, you need the appropriate software. Likewise, certain programs can only do limited things with certain file types, whilst other software can do a lot more. To illustrate – you need Word to open and edit word files. But you can also open them with a basic text editor, you just won’t be able to view them properly, make useful changes, or save the output…

OK… Now think about the way you experience the world. Your operating system (you) and the software that runs on it (built based on your experiences) is capable of dealing with a limited number of file types in limited ways. For instance, unless you’re at trained pilot you won’t be able to fly a plane (running the “fly a plane” file). Closer to everyday experience, without the appropriate exposure or training, your interpretation of, let’s say, a stressful interaction at work, could result in an output that you didn’t want. Using our analogy, you weren’t able to open the file (your interpretation of the event), or could only interact with it in a limited way, with a limited output (let’s say anger and confusion).

When we start to think about experiences and cognitions this way, it helps us understand why we find much of our life experiences frustrating, upsetting or confusing, or find ourselves reacting in ways that we didn’t want or choose. Without the right software, we can’t process the world appropriately, and have only a limited set of responses. This issue is compounded when you take into account the automatic programming common to nearly all human beings. For instance, we spent a lot of our evolution trying not to be eaten by predators and have developed a very powerful set of hardware-based routines to avoid this danger. Unfortunately, in the modern world, these scripts are close to useless, but still rule our lives (as the dominant software) and limit our ability to process information – this is why most of us experience anxiety. These systems are so embedded that they mostly operate unconsciously and, often, without our consent.

Making software modifications isn’t as hard as we think. The great thing about humans is that we have a stable platform to begin with and we can learn really quickly. But the real key is paying attention to what’s going on – sort of like learning to be a system admin – when we pay attention to the files that we’re trying to load, the software that’s attempting to run those files, and the outputs, we can do a lot to change how we respond and behave.

I’ll continue this soon with ideas about how to actually make changes – a hint, it’s about learning what’s important and learning how to use your internal OS to act in line with those values…


4 Replies to “Consciousness, operating systems, and why we struggle with change – Part 1”

  1. Terrific writing on random topics. Im trying
    to currently
    accomplish something similar to what you have here except for on
    a totally different topic. Thank you for the inspiration to
    write better content.

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