Psycho-Cybernetics & Subconscious Mind Programming

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Psycho-Cybernetics" by Maxwell Maltz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does the subconscious mind sabotage your behavior? Is it possible to reprogram your subconscious mind to make yourself act in a more goal-oriented way?

Subconscious mind programming is rooted in the assumption that your mind can be programmed—just like a computer can be—to think in ways that are conducive to your goals. So, if your subconscious mind is working against you (preventing you from performing the behaviors needed to achieve your goals), you can reprogram it to be willing and able to perform those behaviors.

In this article, we’ll discuss two ways your subconscious mind programming impacts how you behave: by processing feedback and influencing your subconscious.

How Your Brain Learns

According to Maxwell Maltz, the author of Psycho-Cybernetics, the human brain and nervous system operate in accordance with cybernetic principles. We program our minds (often unconsciously) to achieve results in the same way that we program machines to achieve specific objectives.

To be able to utilize cybernetics principles for subconscious mind programming, you must first understand how your brain learns at the molecular level. When you learn, you change the physical structure of your brain by strengthening specific neural pathways. Here’s a very brief overview of neural pathways: 

The brain consists of a dense network of pathways consisting of neurons. Synapses allow sensory information to be transmitted through this network of neurons. This sensory information is stored in your short-term memory while your brain processes it by comparing it to the memories you’ve stored in your long-term memory. This process determines whether the new sensory information is kept or discarded.

Neuroscientists believe that your memory and recall rely upon the relationship that your neurons have with each other. The stronger the relationship (the more frequently these neurons interact with each other), the stronger your ability to remember and recall what you need to do. This is because strong neural pathways heighten the transmission speed of information and allow you to effortlessly recall the information you need. This is why you can perform your routine tasks without conscious effort.

Every time you learn something new, you need to form new neural connections within the brain—this requires conscious effort and attention. When you attempt to do something new, your brain has to work much harder because you haven’t yet developed the specific neural pathways—the neurons required to achieve the task haven’t developed a relationship so their communication is inefficient. However, the more you practice, the more you strengthen your neural pathways and encourage the required neurons to interact and develop strong pathways.

While cybernetic machines operate in the same way—they store the correct information and processes in their hard drive and can only operate as efficiently as their memory allows (RAM determines the speed and efficiency of a computer), they benefit from not having to learn or make decisions. Programming (coding for example) determines how they operate, and their hardware and software components determine what kind of tasks they can complete (a Dyson can’t solve equations because it doesn’t have the hardware or software built into it).

1. Your Self-Image Processes Feedback

Maltz argues that the self-image is continually reinforced by what he calls “feedback loops”—how feedback reinforces learned behavior and programming—and draws parallels with how cybernetic machines incorporate feedback to operate successfully.

In this article, you’ll learn how both machines and humans rely upon feedback loops to “operate” and why your interpretation of feedback reinforces your patterns of behavior.

Machines process feedback so that they can achieve their goal. Once they achieve the goal, they store their successful feedback (memory of successful attempts) and discard their negative feedback (memory of mistakes and failures). Their memory of successful attempts creates a feedback loop that allows them to “learn” quickly and operate efficiently and successfully.

However, unlike a machine, humans rely on their self-images to interpret feedback to their behavior. Your self-image decides whether to release negative feedback so that you operate successfully (behave in a way that results in success), or to remember and reinforce negative feedback so that you operate inefficiently (behave in a way that creates failure). If your self-image decides to focus on negative feedback, this can lead to programming that causes you to reinforce negative patterns of behavior that work against what you want to achieve. 

An Example of Unhelpful Feedback Loops

The following example illustrates how negative feedback loops take place to reinforce negative programming: 

  1. Bob was bullied at school and failed to receive support from his classmates, parents, or teachers. 
  2. Bob identified with feeling victimized and isolated, and these feelings contributed to his self-image and his personality. 
  3. As an adult, he finds it difficult to trust others and form close relationships, and he is overly sensitive to how others respond to him. This difficulty to connect with others is expressed in various ways, from aloofness to hostility, but produces the same effect—his behavior keeps people at a distance. 
  4. Bob reads these signals (the feedback) from others as proof that others don’t want to connect with him and he remains acutely aware of how they make him feel (victimized and isolated). 
  5. He uses his interpretation and feelings as proof that he should continue to protect himself from social interactions. 

Bob wants to connect with others (his goal) but his self-image causes him to interpret all feedback as negative, stops him from moving towards what he wants, and perpetuates his self-isolation.

Maltz argues that your self-image determines how you perceive your environment and how you read signals to interpret what others think of you. In other words, your self-image determines how you engage in and perceive every social interaction and experience throughout your life. Feedback loops direct your behavior: Your interpretation of your environment justifies your self-image and how you continue to act—how you continue to act further reinforces your interpretation of your environment, and so on.

How Unconscious Biases Reinforce Feedback Loops

While you may believe that your perceptions and reactions to your environment are entirely logical, you may be under the influence of unconscious biases that reinforce patterns of behavior that you would rather not engage in.

Research shows that your dominant personality traits and patterns of behavior are influenced by cognitive biases. These biases are the result of your brain’s attempt to make quick judgments based on your past experiences, and they shape the way you think about and perceive your environment.

There are many different types of cognitive biases, and each of them influences your perceptions in different ways. For example, Bob’s experience suggests that his behavior is influenced by Confirmation Bias—the tendency to pay more attention to the information that confirms and reinforces his opinion (people don’t like him). 

Bob doesn’t want to have this belief—his past experiences led him to form this belief. However, the confirmation bias shapes his perception so that he can only notice and interpret interactions and experiences that reinforce this belief. As a result, Bob continues to act defensively because his bias ensures that he continues to mistrust others.

2. Your Subconscious Mind Is Influenced by Your Self-Image

Your subconscious mind is a reservoir of thoughts, feelings, and memories that are beneath your conscious awareness. It records and stores your every experience. (In contrast, your conscious mind contains all of the thoughts and feelings that you’re aware of at any given moment.)

Your Subconscious Mind Is Always Awake

There is still much to be learned about how the subconscious mind works. However, neuroscientists have confirmed that 95% of your brain activity takes place beyond your conscious awareness, in your subconscious mind. Further, research reveals that your subconscious mind makes decisions about how you choose to feel or act before your conscious mind even perceives the need to make a decision. 

In addition, your subconscious mind is always alert—one of its jobs is to control your bodily functions and processes so it stays awake even while you’re asleep. Even if you’re not consciously aware of something happening in your environment, your subconscious mind is paying attention to every little detail, and recording the entire experience.
Your Self-Image Is the “Operator” and Your Subconscious Is the “Machine” 

Maltz argues that while you may consciously decide upon a goal, it’s your subconscious mind that guides you towards achieving it. In fact, your subconscious mind is always directing you towards a goal, even if you’re not aware of it

But how does your subconscious mind decide whether or not to pursue a goal? The answer lies with your self-image. Your self-image programs your subconscious mind to achieve goals. If you have a positive self-image, your subconscious works to help you achieve your goals. If you have a negative self-image, your subconscious works to sabotage your goals.

  • For example, if your self-image tells your subconscious mind that you’re good at and enjoy cooking, you’ll approach your time in the kitchen with confidence. However, if your self-image tells your subconscious mind that you hate cooking and always make the most awful meals, you’ll approach the task with a feeling of trepidation. In both cases, the way you think and feel impacts how competently you prepare your meal, and the results that you get (enjoyable meal or terrible meal).

Like a machine, your subconscious mind works automatically and impersonally to achieve the goals that your self-image sets for it, and your behaviors depend on how your self-image has programmed your subconscious to act. Your subconscious mind believes your self-image to be true and doesn’t question what your self-image programs it to do (like a calculator doesn’t care about the numbers you input). Therefore, your self-image dictates the limits of your accomplishments

Recall Bob and the feedback loop that kept him in a state of self-isolation. Bob’s behavior clearly illustrates how subconscious goals direct experience. Consciously, Bob wants to make friends. He doesn’t understand why people don’t like him. He is unable to see that his behavior towards others encourages them to respond to him in a certain way. Bob’s self-image directs his subconscious to protect him from social interactions. No matter how much Bob wants to engage with others, his subconscious brings up fearful thoughts and feelings that hold him back, and limit him from succeeding.

Your Subconscious Follows Your Real Self-Image, No Matter What

If the goals you consciously set for yourself are inconsistent with the subconscious goals your self-image sets for you, your subconscious will reject them. Maltz argues that no amount of willpower or positive thinking will change your results unless you make a conscious attempt to change your self-image and your beliefs. The person who believes she’s a terrible cook will never enjoy cooking no matter how many times she superficially affirms to herself “I’m an excellent cook” (she says it but doesn’t believe it) since her subconscious mind isn’t taking instructions from her, but from her self-image (where her real beliefs are stored).

So, if you’ve identified with being a failure so often that it’s now a part of your self-image, then no matter how hard you work towards achieving something, your subconscious will always find a way for you to fail. If you’ve identified yourself as a victim of circumstances, then your subconscious will always lead you to situations that make you feel powerless. The feedback loop (your behavior plus your interpretation of your experience) will continue to reinforce this pattern.

Maltz, therefore, concludes that, if you want to achieve success and happiness—according to the goals you’ve consciously set out for yourself—you need to ensure that you have a positive self-image. This is the only way to ensure that your subconscious works with you to achieve your idea of success, rather than leading you down a path that works against what you want.

Psycho-Cybernetics & Subconscious Mind Programming

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  • How to program your mind in the same way you’d program a machine
  • How your self-image and patterns of thinking impact everything you do
  • Five methods you can use to improve self-image and create success

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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