Great news – our brains and mental health are just giant algorithms

In his recent book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Hariri argues that our brains (and thus mental health) operate just like complex algorithms. For anyone interested in mental health, this is great news…

Algorithms are the codes that make our world work – they turn the fridge temperature up when you open the door and make your car do pretty much everything apart from press the accelerator.

Yuval Noah Harari – author of Homo Deus – argues that humans operate as complex algorithms

In short, a computational algorithm takes one set of data, runs it through a pre-ordained calculation or process, and churns out new data. They solve problems or perform useful functions.

The automatic windscreen wipers on most modern cars are a good example of a simple algorithm. The data going in is the car’s electronics asking the question, via a rain sensor: is it raining, yes or no?

If yes, the process is turning on the windscreen wipers, and the result – the outcome – is water being cleared from your windscreen. If the sensors decided that it wasn’t raining at the time, the result would be that the wipers would remain static. The algorithm solves the problem that previously a human would have been burdened with.

Our brains also operate in a very similar way in relation to the way we think about our beliefs and emotions – and our brain’s algorithms, the CPU, have been developing from the day we were born and change every day as we react to our environment and life in general.  Almost everything we do, say and think is governed by one of these processes.

This is a great feature because it means that, to at least some extent, we can identify and alter those thought processes which result in depressive or anxious thoughts and poor mental health. Let’s call this our ’emotional algorithm’.

This makes mental health predictable and manageable – as it should be. Despite many people making mental health out to be a magical, mysterious thing that can’t be addressed or has a life of its own, the opposite is true.

We can manage our feelings and emotions when we have the tools to do so and we know how they work – understanding your ’emotional algorithm’ is a big part of taking control of your mental health.

As an aside, the idea that mental health is this mysterious thing – like a sort of mental dark matter – is most likely due to the ineffective treatments many people have been given for issues such as depression, anxiety and phobias in the past few decades.

When the SSRI anti-depressant you’ve been prescribed doesn’t work, or you realise what a lame duck CBT is in treating your issues, it’s understandable and logical to assume that these go-to treatments not working is a sign that you’re really ill in ways the medical profession don’t understand.  You’re probably not, but it’s easy to feel that way when nothing seems to help.

A phobia is a good example, albeit slightly extreme, of how the concept of an emotional algorithm works in humans. If we had a nasty experience with a dog as a child, our mental algorithm governing our emotional response to encountering dogs in everyday life would be dictated by this – and we might be diagnosed with cynophobia.

After identifying a dog walking towards us, our algorithm would probably tell us to cross the road to avoid contact. It might illicit some emotional response too, like a panic or anxiety attack, as a result of processing the event as being a scary, potentially-harmful situation and our body reacting to this threat.

Think about how that though process works when that person see’s that dog: the data going in is an image of the dog entering our brain, the process is the thought that this is a dangerous and scary situation because of the prior experience with canines, and the end result is the panicked response.

Now we know the thought process, it’s easy to see where the problem lays with this phobia – it’s not the dog, it’s the mental reaction to seeing the dog. The emotional algorithm – the processing of the data – is causing the phobia.

Now imagine if instead of processing that event as being an encounter with a scary animal, you process it as an encounter with a harmless pet, how much that would change the response…or maybe you pick something bigger, such as anxiety around going to work or depressive thoughts about not being in a relationship.

Of course, some emotional responses are highly complex and emetophobia – a fear of vomiting or encountering sick – is a good example of this. Often originating from childhood, most people suffer from emetophobia for decades because hardly anyone understands the root cause (the algorithm) of the phobia and what drives it. Sufferers feel hopeless and desperate because of this.

Our specialist Cure Your Emetophobia & Thrive programme is so successful because it identifies the 30-plus elements, or building blocks, that conventionally drive this phobia, and teaches the trainee how to address each one and change their thinking processes.

They’re hacking their phobia’s algorithm as the follow the programme and the results are long-lasting and life-changing.

Take a minute to think of something which you have a negative belief or emotion towards and try to identify the thoughts that underpin this belief – not the data coming in, but the algorithm that’s causing your particular reaction.

Now imagine if you could do this for your mental health. This is what The Thrive Programme teaches – and when people learn to take charge of their mental health, they’re empowered to be the programmer of their own emotional algorithm.