Mental Training: mental techniques are more effective when you know how they work

Mental strength – techniques

Mental strength is a great aid for maintaining and improving both physical and mental health, even in the normal everyday routine, but particularly in challenging situations. In practice, however, mental strength exercises are often ridiculed or rejected due to misunderstanding or bad experiences. This is a shame, because these simple, adaptable, free techniques with no side effects could hugely improve quality of life when used correctly.

In the articles “We can do this!” and “Sleep well, corona!” you will find many helpful tips for simple mental techniques. Over the coming weeks, Nicole Züsli (Psychologist lic. phil. I) will write more about mental strength and everyday mental processes in a total of four articles, as well as providing exercise examples and tips and tricks for mental training. We are very grateful to Nicole Züsli for this guest article and for the whole series!

How does the brain work and what is the point of mental training?

Here, in the first article, we lay the foundations. You will learn funny and fascinating things about yourself and your brain, and about what mental techniques are any good for. The next three articles should help you to avoid the commonest stumbling blocks when using mental techniques and so ensure that they are more effective.

Mental techniques
are primarily used in order to influence specific processes in our brains:

  • Thought processes - brain-gym exercises for older people
  • Feelings - for example, autosuggestion, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) or special psychotherapy methods such as behavioural therapy
  • Physical reactions - breathing or relaxation exercises, for example
  • Movement sequences - such as sport or physiotherapy

“Mental” simply means that you are doing something with your brain. Of course, we all do this 24 hours a day anyway, but the processes in the brain are mostly unconsciously directed.

With regard to thought processes, for example, the permanent bustle of brain concepts such as words, sounds, images, smells and sensations is called “thoughts”. Thoughts are merely the outcome of the actual “thinking” that usually goes on unconsciously, without our deliberate involvement. Therefore, when your internal monologue is running along these lines: “I think I should collect those clothes from the dry-cleaner’s, but I don't have the car right now...” – these are just thoughts, and your brain is in energy-saving mode. Here we mean entirely real, carbohydrate-burning energy. This contrasts with deliberate, focused thinking, where you could use as much energy as you do with great physical exertion. And because we were programmed, thousands and thousands of years ago, to burn as few calories as possible, even today it is rare for us to think deliberately.
This means that our brains are somewhat lazy. This is aggravated by the fact that the brain frequently makes or allows decisions that are far from sensible (for example, lighting up a cigarette even though you absolutely want to give up smoking). To understand this, we first need some information about the composition of our brains.

In general terms, our brains have two parts:

First part: the cerebrum. Imagine it as a large library. This is where most thought processes and information processing take place.

Second part: several other, smaller brain areas, that I will collate under the term “stone-age brain” below. The smaller parts of the brain are, from the perspective of human evolution, the very old elements that we already had 2.6 million years ago, before the cerebrum began to get really big.

These old brain parts respond in the same way today as they did in the Stone Age. For unconscious processes, or in highly critical situations, they take over – unfortunately – from the up-to-date, sensible information from the cerebrum. Such as in the situation of lighting up a cigarette, even though you know exactly how harmful it is to your health, and even though you actually really want to give up smoking. At this point in time, your dominant stone-age brain chooses to regulate your emotions with nicotine, the warmth of the smoke and the comforting action of pulling on a cigarette, against your will and better knowledge. Why does it do that?
Our stone-age brain is a sort of command centre and measuring unit. It governs the majority of our automatic physical functions. The stone-age brain’s tasks are as follows: while you are reading this article, you don’t need to be constantly, consciously thinking “breathe in – breathe out – breathe in...” You don’t need to think about the fact that, every second, you need to quickly renew fifty million of our sixty billion body cells. And you don’t need to make sure that you don’t grab the wrong ones! You don’t need to order your heart to beat, or prompt your digestive juices to break down the milk that you just drank into smaller, more easily usable substances in your stomach, and so on. There are countless functions like this, and they are all essential to survival.

We have a special nervous system, the “autonomous” or “vegetative” nervous system for governing automatic physical functions. In this instance, vegetative does not mean anything to do with plants. “Autonomous” is a better description, because everything governs itself, but it is used less often.

The vegetative nervous system is predominantly controlled by the stone-age brain. We are too distracted in our daily lives to think about everything at once. We would forget vital functions, or do them wrong. But even the smallest mistake would be a catastrophe.

Because it is so delicate, we generally have no conscious access to our automatic functions. You and I, for example, would not be able to spontaneously slow our hearts down to 30 beats per minute just with willpower. Great mediation masters and yogis can do this, but it requires life-long, intensive practice.

We control the functions that we can consciously access, such as moving our bodies, with what is called the “somatic” or “voluntary” nervous system. The somatic nervous system, on the other hand, is primarily controlled by the cerebrum. To make this explanation even simpler, and because the names “somatic nervous system” and “vegetative nervous system” are somewhat unwieldy, I will use personifications for both systems:

“Willi” is the helmsman of the cerebrum and the somatic nervous system. “Vegi” is the helmswoman of the vegetative nervous system. Of course, Willi and Vegi don’t really exist!

The whole stone-age brain is a programming miracle, a wonder of interacting functions without which we would die. But unfortunately, Vegi is stupid. Stupid, in this case, means that Vegi doesn’t switch on any thought processes before acting. She receives a signal and immediately triggers the reaction she considers necessary for survival. She will accept advice from Willi, but only sometimes. And because she feels responsible for our survival, she always takes over from Willi in critical or unfamiliar situations.
For example, when you are at the zoo or a terrarium, face to face with a giant snake, and Willi has furnished you with the reassuring information that there is a thick pane of glass between you and the snake, you will still jump, horrified, if the snake suddenly darts towards you with its mouth wide open. These practical panes of glass did not exist in the Stone Age, so Vegi does her job and contracts your muscles so you can run away. In the case of a snake, this comes under the category of “instinct”. In the case of a dog, any flight reaction that may be initiated at the sight of the animal is rather a learned response. When you see a dog, Vegi receives the signal “dog” via your eyes, ears and nose, briefly asks Willi what experience we already have with dogs and, depending on what we have stored in our cerebrum, we either move happily towards the dog and call to it, or ignore it as being uninteresting, or we prepare to flee.

It doesn’t matter what Vegi and Willi do all day (and all night). It always ends with thought processes, feelings, physical reactions or body movements for or in the relevant person. If these are not desired, it is helpful to suspend the brain’s automatic mode and deploy conscious techniques.

When we use them, we can take advantage of two factors:
Firstly, that Vegi is stupid. Because she has to react immediately to whatever you put in front of her, even when Willi specifically knows that you are tricking Vegi. You know this from going to the cinema, or evenings watching TV: you sit there in your chair, knowing very well that the hero on the screen isn’t actually dying, but is an actor doing his job, and you still cry your eyes out. Because when a director uses the right stimuli in the right quantity in a film or programme, this will trigger the required responses from Vegi (such as crying, or nearly falling out of your chair with fright). When we watch a film, Vegi is watching and listening too. Stone-age Vegi has, of course, absolutely no clue about the cinema or television. What stone-age people saw and heard really was right there in front of them. That is why Vegi considers realistic images of the world to be genuine and reacts accordingly. Thankfully, you don’t need to call Hollywood every time you want to regulate your inner life and order a suitable film. You can do it just fine on your own. You have your cerebrum – the best film-factory in the world! Use it to imagine sounds, images, smells and touch sensations so realistically that your Vegi responds to them, like she does in the cinema. The big screen in your head!

Secondly you can also take advantage of the fact that Vegi, when she receives an inbound signal, always quickly asks Willi about our previous experiences, except with instinctive reactions: were they pleasant, neutral or unpleasant? If you drop information to Willi in your cerebrum before Vegi asks for it, Vegi will find something in the response triggers that will elicit the response you want. Advertising uses this effect to tell us, for example, that brushing your teeth is suddenly sexy. Information is deposited in the brain through learning and the same is true here

The more consciously you do it, the better you can control and regulate your inner life.

I will discuss both factors in more detail in future articles, and show you how you can easily and specifically take advantage of these options in your daily life. In the coming weeks you will learn more about how to use the big screen in your head and, in the weeks after that, you will receive information about focused learning and training.

Züsli, N. (2019). Mensch! Psychologie im Alltag einfach erklärt. (2nd edition).