Inside your skull is a massive supercomputer. You own it free and clear. With its 100 billion neurons, and with a typical neuron linking to 1000 to 10,000 other neurons, your highly networked brain is incredibly powerful and capable.
Pick up a simple object nearby like a pen or a spoon, and look at it. Turn it upside down. Spin it around. Notice that your brain is able to recognize the object no matter how you position it. You can change the lighting by putting the object in shadow. You can obscure part of it from view. You can bend or break it. And your brain still recognizes that object simply and easily. Even a child can do this.
But what’s happening under the hood? Your visual cortex, consisting of about 538 million neurons, is doing an enormous amount of parallel processing on the signals it’s receiving from your eyes. Your visual cortex detects edges, evaluates color, tracks motion, interprets reflection, and more — all in real time.
Your brain even does some extra processing to compensate for the blind spot on the back of your retina. Your eyes don’t actually “see” any data for that blind spot because there are no rods or cones there — it’s the place where your optic nerve connects to the back of your eyeball — but your visual cortex uses the surrounding information to intelligently predict what should be in that blind spot, and it fills in the missing data with its best guess. If a line crosses through your blind spot, you’ll still perceive it as a continuous line, even though the initial data coming from your retina has that line broken into two pieces.
All of this processing happens subconsciously. You don’t feel it happening, and you aren’t consciously aware of all this computational effort. Yet that part of your brain is very active, lit up with chemical and electrical activity, consuming oxygen and sugar and other internal resources to perform such complex computations at such high speed.
Even when you focus your attention upon it, you can’t consciously access what your visual cortex is doing. These computations are way too fast and way too complex for your conscious mind to keep up.
Your visual cortex is only about 1/200th of your brain. Your auditory cortex is about 1/1000th. If you can’t even consciously fathom what these relatively small brain regions are doing computationally, what hope do you have of maintaining awareness of what the rest of your brain is doing on an ongoing basis?
The truth is that this is a hopeless challenge. Your conscious mind doesn’t have anywhere close to the capacity that would be required to intelligently monitor and maintain all the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are constantly firing inside of you. Most of the time you’re not even aware of what’s happening inside your mind.
You may perceive the experience of thinking as a fairly linear process. Your conscious mind seems to flow through basically one thought at a time, just as you may read one word at a time. But that isn’t what’s actually happening behind the scenes.
The reality is that different patches of neurons are processing different thoughts in parallel at all times. Your thinking is never linear and straightforward. Even when you read words in a linear order, your brain is actually perceiving and processing all of the words within your field of view at all times.
When you listen to human speech, your brain is automatically predicting which words are likely to be heard next. It’s actually pre-loading multiple patterns simultaneously. Then when the next word is verified, your brain fires off different neuron patches to suppress the incorrect predictions and to validate the correct branch. Your brain doesn’t actually wait for words to be spoken. It processes syntax and meaning well ahead of what it’s hearing. And since it can’t predict every word with perfect accuracy, it predicts along multiple branches at the same time.
Even if I leave a few words out of this ____, your ___ can still read the sentence just fine. It picks up the meaning. If I said this sentence aloud and paused briefly at the blanks, you may have even experienced the phantom audio effect of hearing the words that weren’t actually spoken.
What were the fill in the blank words? Were they sentence and brain?Statement and mind? Line and eyes. It doesn’t matter. Your brain simultaneously explored multiple possibilities and filled in the expected meaning.
The Priming Effect
Soon we’ll get into the practical application aspects, but first let’s do a simple exercise. Let me share a few random words with you that seemingly have nothing to do with this article:
Now let me ask you to fill in the blank letters to complete the following word:
F _ _ L
Chances are good that your brain picked a word related to the list above, even though there are many possible solutions.
Now stretch your mind by going through the alphabet, and consider other choices you could have selected. There are lots of possibilities, but the priming effect likely got your brain fixated on one that matched the previous words.
Now get this: The priming effect even works when you aren’t consciously aware of the words or ideas you’re being primed with. For instance, if I’d hidden those words elsewhere on this page where your eyes would have seen them, but you wouldn’t have consciously noticed them, the effect would be essentially the same. Or in a video presentation, if those words were flashed on the screen too quickly for your conscious mind to notice, but slow enough for your visual cortex to perceive and process, that would have also primed your choice in the wordplay test.
This priming effect works on a much grander scale than word games, and its influence is usually subtle and unconscious. I guarantee that it’s operating in your life right now.
Suppose you read the daily news from a typical news source (i.e.overwhelmingly pessimistic). So your mind gets primed with words like these (which were taken from actual Yahoo News’ headlines):
So you read the news in the morning and prime your brain with words like the above. What’s the priming effect? What other thoughts, feelings, or ideas are being pre-loaded because they’re related to the above? Danger. I’m scared. I need to play it safe and protect what I have. I can’t afford to take risks. Stress response.
Then you check social media, and your friends are sharing the usual trivialities. Priming effect: Not important. Wasting time. Boring. Pointless. Petty drama. Feeling inadequate. Jealousy.
You check email next. It’s mostly spam. Your inbox is filled with old junk you haven’t processed. Priming effect: Disorganized. Feeling behind. Clutter. Stress. Overwhelm. Need to clean this up. Distraction.
You make some coffee. It’s the cheap stuff, and you drink it from an cruddy old ceramic mug that’s chipped. Priming effect: Can’t have what I want. Broken. Low quality. Ugly. Cheap.
You start using your computer. It’s an older model, sluggish and also a bit ugly. Priming effect: Settling for less. Frustration. Wishing for better and not getting it. Slowness. Amateur. Unappreciated.
You use pirated software on your computer. Priming effect: Criminal. Wrong. Cheap. Dishonest. Dishonorable. Hiding. Sneaky.
And now you go to work trying to improve your life. Is that going to work out well? Probably not.
Your brain is always bouncing around between linked associations. It does this in parallel, subconsciously, all the time. There are countless new neuroscience books sharing more and more details about how the brain does this. The simple truth is that the vast majority of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors occur without your conscious awareness or conscious involvement.
The lesson here is that seemingly subtle influences matter. If your senses perceive it, your brain is processing it. And this processing is seldom isolated. One little change in input can create significant ripples throughout your neural net. And this in turn can have a significant influence on the results you get to experience.
Now for the exciting part: The priming effect presents us with some enormous opportunities for personal growth. By exerting some control over our priming influences — which may involve just a few small changes that can be made within a minute or two — we can create a permanent and lasting improvement in different facets of our lives.
By giving your brain slightly different input on a subconscious level, you can enjoy some truly significant benefits on the results side. This is easy. It works. And there are many ways you can apply this for free.
Here’s how I deliberately prime myself each day.
I wake up and cuddle a bit before getting up. Priming effect: Affection. I am loved. Happy. Feeling lucky.
If I make some oatmeal, I use the best oats I’ve found (Bob’s Red Mill organic oats), mixed with fresh blueberries or organic raisins. Priming effect: Having the best. Better than average.
If I make some coffee, I use the best quality, such as 100% Kona coffee from Hawaii. It costs twice as much as the gourmet stuff, but nothing else compares. Priming effect: Quality. I deserve the best. Reward.
I enter my home office. It’s neat and tidy. My desk is a GeekDesk, which I really like. My computer is the best MacBook Pro available (with every possible upgrade: max processor speed, max ram, max storage). My cell phone is the best model of the newest iPhone. The newest iPad Air is there too. Everything has a Retina display. Priming effect: Quality. Best. Success. Feeling supported. Loving technology. Professional. Abundance. Speed. Efficiency. Gracefulness. Delight. Cool.
All the software on my computer is bought and paid for. Almost everything is the latest version (always the latest for frequently used software). Primary effect: Current. Up to date. Honest. Deserving. Supported. Honorable. Abundant. Efficient.
On the marker board on my office wall, I have some words written in one of the corners. I pay little attention to those words during the day, but I know that just having them within my field of view while I work will have a priming effect on my brain throughout the day. For the past several weeks, I had the word Flow written there. My workflow has been stunningly good during that time. Today I have the following words in the top right corner of my marker board:
Writing a new blog post is one of eight tasks on today’s agenda. If you’re reading this article, that task was obviously completed.
Throughout the day as I work on my computer, my visual cortex will always be processing those words. I won’t be aware of that processing most of the time, but such words can help to govern which other related patches of neurons my brain fires throughout the day. I want it to keep activating thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are associated with those primed words. This will happen automatically and takes no extra effort on my part. But if it helps my productivity just a little, why not do it?
This approach has worked well for me, so I encourage you to give it a try. If you don’t have a marker board, just grab some paper or a sticky note. Jot down a few words — pictures work too — and inject them into your visual environment.
And in case it isn’t abundantly obvious, be sure to remove any negative priming from your field of view. If there are words or pictures that depict violence, failure, scarcity, or anything you don’t want to prime your brain with every day, get those items out of your field of view. Make sure your visual cortex is processing predominantly positive signals. What if you’re not sure? If you’re not sure, replace it. Put something there that you feel sure about — in a good way — instead.
If you don’t have a workspace where you can control enough of the priming effect, then have your boss read this article, and invite him/her to help you improve the working conditions for better productivity. No intelligent leader will want to prime their employees with destructive or unproductive thoughts. If you’re working for someone that unintelligent, go work someplace else. If you feel trapped, then put the word “quit” on a sticky note in your field of view, and see how long you can resist leaving.
Think Improvement, Not Perfection.
You can of course go overboard fussing over priming by nitpicking every detail of your environment. My suggestion is to pace yourself. Tackle the most frequent, ever-present influences first.
Where do you spend most of your time? Make that environment a bastion of positive priming. Put up words and pictures that prime your mind with the associations you desire. Clear out any clutter from your field of view. If you can’t clean up the clutter right away, then be sure to put it behind you and out of sight as much as possible, so your visual cortex isn’t processing and reprocessing it as input all day long.
When I’m at my desk, I like to be primed with thoughts associated with motivation, productivity, focus, stimulation, creativity, flow, service, value, etc. So I cultivate an environment that feels aligned with such thoughts. Consequently, I find it very easy to feel motivated and to get into a good workflow when I’m at my desk. I can float through a 12+ hour workday with ease and delight. Working in my home office is relaxing and pleasurable.
When I’m at home but not working, I’d rather prime myself with different thoughts: coziness, luxury, wealth, abundance, happiness, enjoyment, satisfaction, growth, friendship, cuddling, beauty, relationships, etc. Some rooms of my home do a good job of priming in that direction, especially the cozy spot on the couch by the fireplace or the spacious kitchen with granite counters. I’m also pondering ways to improve other parts of the house to improve the priming effect. Even small tweaks can help. For instance, I recently bought some artistic letters from Cost Plus that spell out the word TRAVEL, so whenever I walk through a certain room, my brain picks up the priming effect, which encourages me to travel me. That may have even influenced me to take some extra spontaneous trips recently.
Don’t worry about perfection. Just keep leaning into the direction of improvement. Make some small adjustments today. Grab a sticky note, write a word like “focus” or “motivated” on it, and put it on the wall in the corner of your field of view. Then go about your day as usual.
I don’t stick anything on my computer monitor since I feel that would prime thoughts associated with clutter, but writing something on my marker board doesn’t trigger any potential downside that I can discern. Your associations to sticky notes may be different though. Feel free to experiment.
Don’t waste the value of priming on neutral items when you can substitute something with a more positive association. Don’t buy a random piece of art that’s meaningless to you. Prime yourself with pieces that you believe will trigger positive associations. You don’t need a lot of quantity.
I like to keep my workspace field of view fairly simple. If there isn’t much of significance in front of me other than a fairly spartan workspace, I expect this may enhance the priming effect of what is actually there. It also focuses the effect since the few objects help to align in a fairly consistent direction (professional, organized, neat, relaxed), as opposed to a viewport that’s overwhelming with a hodgepodge of items that may trigger mixed associations.
Priming for Quality on a Budget
Here are some more suggestions for priming your mind for quality, abundance, and success if your budget is currently pretty tight:
I’m sure you can come up with many more simple changes you could make to your environment, regardless of your budget.
I know that many of these changes may seem trivial. Are they actually worth doing? Modern neuroscience has a clear answer for that. The answer is yes. If you want to read a dozen books or conduct your own brain research on this subject to validate that, be my guest. Or you can take a few minutes to try some of these ideas, and see what happens. These are such simple and easy changes to make that testing them is very low risk. I think you’ll be pleased — even surprised — with the results.
If you’d like to upgrade something bigger but can’t afford to tackle everything, I suggest putting all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. So if you can’t afford to upgrade all of your tech, then just upgrade one piece of it, but upgrade to the absolutely best model for you. For instance, get the best phone for you, but keep using your old computer.
In my experience it works better to have one small item shining as a symbol of the priming you desire against a backdrop of junk vs. the effect of having an entire field of slightly upgraded mediocrity to prime you. Even if all you do is buy some nicer pens and leave everything else the same, that alone can get things flowing in a more abundant direction.
Dressing for Success
Some people also recommend wearing really nice clothes to prime thoughts like success, wealth, and professionalism. I’ll share some thoughts on this based on my experience.
I notice a difference in the priming effect of what I’m wearing when I’m interacting with others, such as when I’m giving a presentation or chatting with friends or just running errands. I think my clothes are actually priming them to respond to me in a certain way, and that in turn can influence my own thinking. Generally speaking, the nicer I dress, the better the results.
However, I haven’t noticed much difference in the priming effect of my clothing when I’m working alone. I suspect it’s because most of the time I’m working solo, I can’t really see my clothes. My visual cortex isn’t processing much input there, except when I look down or see myself in a mirror.
When working alone I actually want to prime myself with comfort more than with looking sharp. I like to feel relaxed and comfortable in my body, so I prime for that, even if it’s more kinesthetic than visual.
I’m writing this article while wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and Vans sneakers. Could you tell? Does that make my writing any less professional? I doubt it. In fact, I suspect that wearing a suit might prime me to feel more formal, less authentic, and stiffer, which could be detrimental to my communication style. I’d rather prime for a casual, relaxed, and friendly style of writing.
Again, I recommend experimenting. Try different styles of dress to see what works for you. I’m able to be very productive while dressing incredibly casually. Overdressing at home would likely prime me with thoughts like feelinginefficient and a bit ridiculous, even though I might enjoy dressing up for other occasions. Your results may be different. Only way to know for sure is to test.
What About Daily Affirmation?
Daily affirmations are another way to use priming, but I find them largely ineffective. They can help a little, and I know that some people swear by them, but the main problem is that their influence is very temporary. Affirmations also tend to be very slow to work. You may have to do them for several weeks or even months before you notice much difference.
Other forms of priming work much faster, often with significant results on the same day you begin to apply them. Daily affirmations also lose their influence as soon as you stop doing them, whereas other priming methods can be more permanent and passive.
So I don’t recommend doing daily affirmations because there are stronger and more effective ways to influence yourself, especially given what modern neuroscience is telling us about how the brain works.
Realize that everything that comes through your senses is an affirmation. Your brain is processing input all day long, and that other input is no less important than your own self-talk. If you do verbal affirmations for several minutes in the morning, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to all the other influences hitting you throughout the day. It’s like an ant trying to move a tractor. Yes, that ant still exerts a measurable force on the tractor, but the tractor remains unimpressed and unmoved by the ant’s best efforts.
Telling yourself “I am attracting financial abundance” is of limited utility if, as soon as you’re done with your affirmations, you then go on to re-prime your brain with thoughts of scarcity, lack, and laziness by using your disgusting toothbrush that should have been replaced months ago, checking a cluttered email inbox on a frustratingly slow computer running pirated software, and drinking cheap coffee from an ugly hand-me-down mug your parents gave you.
So instead of time-bound affirmations, I recommend that you make more permanent, persistent, and passive changes. Instead of reading your affirmations aloud each day, post some keywords or pictures within your visual field where you’ll see them frequently, ideally someplace where your visual cortex will be processing them continuously for many hours each day. Just be careful not to create too much visual clutter in such a way that could prime you for thoughts like clutter and confusion.
I think the best affirmations are passive and automatic. Instead of installing the daily habit of reciting verbal affirmations, take a minute or two to install a passive, automatic, and continuous affirmation. I think you may find as I do that simply having a word like “flow” or “motivated” in your field of view all day while you work has a much greater effect than reading dozens of affirmations for 30 days in a row. Try it for yourself.
Using the Best Tools
Your brain is incredibly powerful — and highly programmable. Your brain is constantly being programmed by your environment. You may not be able to overpower your brain by conscious effort in this moment, but you can change its ongoing influences, starting today. Start feeding your mind new input that aligns with your desires. Trigger it to keep activating the associations you desire to activate most frequently. And remove those influences that you no longer wish to activate. If this means that you have to kick an overly negative person out of your life because they’re frequently priming you for negative thinking, then do that.
Don’t fret about what you can’t do yet. Think improvement, not perfection. You can always do something. So do that one thing now. Then make another improvement. And another. And all the while, you’ll be benefitting from the stacking improvements you’ve made previously. This will build momentum in a very positive direction.
I’ve noticed that the more I’ve invested in these conscious priming efforts, the more it has created a steamroller effect in the direction of my desires. When you reach the point that your own priming efforts become a habit unto themselves, it gets so much easier to stay aligned with what you want.
I’m getting used to the habit of using the best tools that money can buy, and I’m really noticing a difference in my work ethic. But I can’t account for this improvement with the change in the quality of the tools alone. Honestly, those tools are just a little better than what I was previously using. The difference in productivity seems to be largely coming from the ripple effect that stems from knowing that I’m using the best quality tools available. Whenever I use these tools, I’m priming my brain with other associations that cause me to feel more motivated, to take more action, to work with better focus, and therefore to enjoy more results. I’m also no longer regularly priming the associations that were linked with the old tools, like feeling outdated, behind the times, less professional, a bit envious, etc.
For most of last year, I was using a 4-year old computer, thinking it was still plenty good and that I didn’t really need a new one. Now I use a top-of-the-line model, and the feeling I have while using it is very different. Sure it’s faster, lighter, and has a nicer screen. But the experience of using it goes beyond that. In the back of my mind, I know that I’m using the best there is. I feel current and caught up. I feel more on top of my game. I feel more motivated to work. I enjoy working more. After making these upgrades, I did more than enough extra work to earn back the purchases many times over. Now I’m wondering how much further I can push this mindset. What else can I change to improve this priming effect even more?
How do you feel about using the best tools available? Do you give yourself that experience? Or do you deny yourself that experience? What associations do your choices trigger when you use your tools? Do you love them? Do you feel lucky to wield them? Or do you associate your tools with thoughts like frustration, envy, unworthiness, or unfairness?
Which tools do you expect would prime you with the most positive associations when you use them? What if you don’t think you can afford them? Is there a way you could still use them? Note that you don’t have to buy them. You could rent or borrow them if you wanted. Maybe even apply the timeshare concept to some of your tools, sharing the cost with other people who could also use them. That may not work so well for a phone, but it could work for a tablet if you don’t use it that often. Especially if you’ve never done it before, give yourself the opportunity to experience at least some small slice of time using the very best tools in your field. See how that feels to you. Don’t be too surprised if you have the thought, “Nice! I could really get used to this!”
After all, the best tools are only a matter of money. They’re out there in the world, available right now, probably in mass quantities. If you have the money, they’re just a few mouse clicks away. And money itself is something you can earn with your creativity. So if you think that the best tools are a distant fantasy for you, perhaps it’s wise to prime your brain with associations toabundance, creativity, hard work, enjoyment of your work, worthiness, professionalism, and especially flow.
Professionals have the privilege of using the best tools. Are you a pro? The title is arbitrary. Anyone can claim it, no special degree required. Being a pro is merely an attitude. If you want that title, and whatever associated benefits you think are attached to it, then claim it. Put the word “Pro” somewhere in your work environment.
Prime Your Day
Finally, let me close this article by deliberately priming you with some positive thoughts for your day:
Feel free to add to this list, or create your own, as a way of priming yourself for a day that aligns with your desires.
Your brain is a brilliant supercomputer. Your sensory input is the programming. Your conscious mind is the programmer. You can’t control everything in your life (or inside your brain), but you can definitely change some of the dominant sensory input that ripples through your subconscious every day.
You can have what you desire. Take advantage of the priming effect to get your neurons activating the patterns and associations that align with your desires. Make one of the changes recommended above right now, such as writing the word “flow” or “motivated” (or both) somewhere you’ll see it every day within your field of view. You’ll be glad you did!