Full transcript of author, speaker Alistair Horscroft’s TEDx Talk: 7 Seconds To Change Your Life at TEDxNoosa 2014 Conference.
Alistair Horscroft – Author & Speaker
OK, I think it’s fair to say that some people find it hard to make the positive changes that they want in their life, regardless of race, creed, color, social economic status.
I’ve worked with military veterans and their posttraumatic stress, trying to conquer the traumatic thoughts and the associated feelings that run through their body. The anxiety sufferer who is so consumed by worry that they haven’t left the house for days or perhaps weeks on end. Or maybe just the smoker who wants to break the habit, so he can live longer and spend more time with their loved ones, the person who wants to make a simple dietary changes, stop eating a food that’s causing problems and start eating healthfully. Or maybe the CEO or the business person who wants to get up on stage and public speak so that they can rise up the ladder. All these things, all these things are affecting so many people.
And so today I am going to talk about how we can create a space that allows these changes to occur more easily. But I’m sure some of you, and I don’t know who the guilty parties are, might think that when it comes to change, perhaps it’s easier than you think. And it always reminds me of this comedy skit by Mad TV and you can see it on YouTube, it’s very very funny and it goes something like this. You had this lady who’s suffering from this absolutely terrible claustrophobia. Very very concerned about being buried alive in a box was her specific issue. And she walks in to see the psychiatrist and then he listens very very intently to what she has to say. And she goes on and on about how this is affecting her life. And after she’s kind of finished her diatribe he says, ‘Well, I’m going to give you two words and I would like you to take these two words into your life and notice how they change things.’ And so she’s there very very patiently, and she says, ‘Shall I write them down?’
He goes, ‘No, no, I think it would be OK. It’s just two words.’
And there she goes, ‘Waiting, waiting.’
He goes, ‘Just stop it. Yes, stop it.’
It’s very funny, very very funny. And of course I’m sure some of us when we see our friends or loved ones or even people with, you know, rather manage disorders sometimes you’re just thinking, ‘Why don’t you just stop it?’ Great, just stop it. And sometimes we can. It is true but a lot of the time people can’t.
Sometimes I often hear people say, ‘Well, when you want to change you just need to believe in yourself.’ We hear this a lot, you know these days, ‘just believe in yourself, you just believe in yourself, anything can happen.’ But it always reminds me of the late great comedian Bill Hicks and his observations on people who took hallucinogenic drugs. And as a result of taking the hallucinogenic drugs, they believed that they could fly. In fact, such was their belief that they went to the top of very high buildings and jumped off, I think we call that a faithful belief.
But the thing that Bill did, it was very funny. He goes, ‘Well, look, surely surely surely, if you really believe that you could fly, you would try taking off in the ground first’. Yes, after all you don’t see 20 geese going up into the elevator to the top of a building to take off. They know, they know, they know. So belief is a funny thing. Most of the time a belief requires evidence for it to make any change.
Now when it comes to what do I do — we need to find out that stopping it or telling people just to stop it doesn’t really work. And also, telling people they need to believe in themselves doesn’t really work. And I found this out very very subtly when I did a project in Sydney. I did a project with Taronga Zoo in Sydney and I ran a program called Fearless at Taronga for seven years and for six and a half years we had a hundred percent success rate in helping people overcome their animal phobias. The first six months were wobbly but those six and a half years they were really solid and we helped people eliminate and take control of severe phobias, normally around spiders, snakes, those kind of things. And if anything was, these people would come in and they were so desperately frightened, so desperately kind of out of control with their phobia that we had to kind of find a way of relaxing them.
And so what we did is when they came in, we would offer them ways of winning cash — two ways of winning cash, which is a bit peculiar on a phobia course, I’m sure. And the first way that you could win cash was the person who could present the most extraordinary phobic reaction. Now bearing in mind we’ve had people faint, passed out, be sick, sprint hysterically out of the room, you really had to work hard to win that cash prize.
And the second cash prize that people could win was the person with the best origin story for their phobia. And that title was held for four years by a lady who believed that spiders had hunted her down through seven lifetimes with the sole purpose of making her life a total misery. So you can see that when you have people like this, just telling them to stop it and get them to believe in themselves doesn’t really kind of cut the mustard, you know.
Anyway, I want to get on and talk more about this space. Before I do so I need to give you a little bit of kind of behind the scenes knowledge as it were. And I’d like you to imagine just for a moment that you’re in a game show and in this game show you have two buzzers, you’ve got a buzzer here and you’ve got a buzzer there. And this buzzer is controlled by your conscious processing, your conscious mind and this buzzer is controlled by your unconscious processing, your unconscious mind. And whoever gets to press the button first, how these two parts of you get to choose the next response to the moment, they get to choose the next response to the moment.
And I want you to imagine if we take this into a setting, let’s say, for example, a new social experience. You’re going into a new social party or some kind of social experience and you decided that you want to go in there and do confidence with your conscious mind. You said, ‘Oh, yeah I’m going to be confident.’ And you’re going to walk in and you’re going to do your fancy-pants confidence.
But as you kind of walk in, all of a sudden something happens. What happens is, is this bloody unconscious just starts hitting its button again and again and again and all of a sudden you find yourself feeling nervous, worried, consumed by certain thoughts what people are thinking of you and you’re doing the absolute opposite of confidence. So how does that occur? When it occurs, because although there’s no agreed-upon speed there, if you take the mean for more research studies we find that the conscious processing travels at about a hundred miles per hour around your brain. But your unconscious processing travels about a hundred thousand miles per hour around your brain. So what this means is your conscious mind is kind of going calm — and the unconscious you just go no, no, no, you need to do something else what I tell you to do.
And so it seems to me that actually contrary to what most people believe our unconscious actually meets the moment first and your conscious mind is more of an observer to what your unconscious has already dictated or decided that it’s going to occur. In fact, we can take this further and we can get to the meat of this which is this 7 seconds.
So I don’t know about you but when I was kind of up until very very recently, whenever I heard about brain scan equipment or brain scans, the only image that ever came to my mind was that Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters, you know that colander on his head and a little kind of things coming out of him and this lady has prepared one. And I was so disappointed when brain scans, something you look like that, they look far more like this, which isn’t good if you’ve got claustrophobia. And this is called a functional resonance imaging machine, magnetic resonance imaging machine and it is basically a fancy kind of brain scan. And this piece of equipment was used by a Dr. John-Dylan Haynes from Berlin University, a neuroscientist. And perhaps six years ago he did some research, it was quite extraordinary and it certainly made him sit down for three days when he heard it and made me lie down when I heard it.
And what he found was that the unconscious had dictated or decided a decision that your conscious mind thought that it made a second before you actually made it. So again more of this confirmation that your conscious is just an observation to what your own unconscious dictates. In fact, it goes deeper and he really had to lie down when he found this out. He found out that your unconscious often predicted the decision or the response it was going to make to the moment up to seven seconds before your conscious mind was aware of what was going on.
And now we need to look at them, I mean that seven seconds, so imagine that you decide — say, for example, you’re given an arbitrary decision to pick a number between one and ten or something like this. And you think that you just made that decision, but it’s pick three or pick 7 but one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, seconds earlier your unconscious had began to pattern recognize everything that was going on and began to decide and dictate what response you were going to make. This is extraordinary.
So let’s talk about this space, this space that I’m talking about. Now to talk about this space that we can create, that will allow us to begin to make changes in such a way that the changes you make become a part of our unconscious programming as it were, so that they become our immediate response. We don’t have to think about it, instead we can deliver that response by our unconscious and to create that space I believe we need to look at two parts of the brain that people far smarter than me have told me about.
And the first part of the brain is what they call the amygdala. And the amygdala as I’ve been told is your emotional processing unit within your brain. It’s to do with your emotional level, emotional arousal at any given point in time and we often hear associated to the flight and fight response.
The second part that we want to look at is the frontal lobe, and this part of the brain has to do with reasoning, rationality, it’s mostly with the modern brain that allows us to critique situations and basically they’re thinking opposite, kind of work things out and compare and contrast. And when these two parts of the brain have been used successfully we can do extraordinary things and when they’re being used kind of successfully again but against us we can start feeling all the things we don’t want to feel and behaving in ways that we don’t want to behave.
So let me give you an example. This gentleman here I’m going to get my point right here. If we go to the royal journal of the scientific obvious we can begin to see some effects of the Amygdala in action, we can see some nice sweating here, just sweating here and we can see a nice pallid face here. And we can begin to diagnose that he’s suffering from a case of being scared shitless.
And we need to help this young lad to a different solution. And so how do we do that? Well, think about it this way. When we go into a situation, say, for example, you know a public speaking situation for those of you who don’t enjoy it, what we can do is we can go on and some can say, oh, just stop it, you’ll be fine to believe in yourself, get out there. You say, go okay, and then this occurs.
So why does this occur? Well, it occurs because as you go in, your amygdala is highly aroused. OK, it’s flight or fight response is being very very sensitized, it’s been kind of set off as it were. And as a result of that your critical faculty can think about the opposite and instead of thinking about what you want to deliver and what you want to do, it begins to think about the opposite because of its contrasting ability within the mind. The same can occur if you know — lots of people have fears of flying, fears of anything, it’s the same thing. You tell them just to think calmly and relaxed, you just imagine going in there being calm and relaxed at ease and all of a sudden they think about it, their amygdala kicks in, they start thinking in the opposite.
So what we need to do is we need to create a space — a space where we can begin to sooth this amygdale so it has a neutral emotional response to what is being said and then give suggestions or give information in such a way that is not critiqued, it’s just taken on board as the new behavior or the new suggestion.
Now there are many, not many really, there are a few kind of approaches currently that are doing this kind of thing. We’ve got hypnosis, for example, and hypnosis very effectively does a similar — not the same but a similar kind of thing to what I’m talking about. The only problem with hypnosis is it’s greatly misunderstood, so much misinformation out there about it but it gets exhausting trying to tell people what it actually is and get through what they think it is.
Another thing is meditation — meditation uses a very similar state to what I’m talking about. But meditation is more of a witnessing, more of an observation of thoughts, more of a witness on thought, it’s not really a volitional action or volitional control or changing of thoughts. But both of those things I am talking about hypnosis and meditation very much are the same state if we would look at it from a neuroscience perspective.
But I’d like to kind of create a new term, or coin a new term I believe that I call functional awareness. And this functional awareness state is this neutralizing of amygdala and it’s kind of bypassing or dissociation of the critical faculty so that we can think about what we want to think about.
So how do we do it? Well, really at the end of the day we do it using our modern mind. We use our amazing powers of language and imagination and just these two skills when used skillfully can create this space in minutes, not more than that, just minutes. And the reason why this is so important and really to conclude is — it’s my idea that I’m really sharing with you today that if the healing professions, if the change work professions, clinical psychology, psychotherapy, counseling, coaching, whatever it may be that are wanting to help people get from where they are to where they want to be, where they want to help someone who isn’t doing rational thought, who isn’t just stopping it when we tell them to stop it, who regardless of all of the time and hours they spent trying to believe in themselves, it’s not working. When all of that doesn’t work I believe that if these professions spent far more time really understanding and accepting the reality of our unconscious dominance and accepting and understanding that by creating states in our minds, states in our brain where change is more likely to occur, our veterans, anxiety sufferers, you, me, everyone who wants to change a habit or behavior, whatever it may be, will be able to do it far far more successfully.
Hope it’s been enjoyable.