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Viral Mehta Headshot

The Neurobiology of 'Labeling'

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I almost spat it out by reflex. My friend had handed me a plastic bottle of milk with a bright pink label, and I'd taken a sip from it assuming that it was strawberry flavored, but it turned out to be regular milk -- cold and fresh -- which I actually like. So why such a strong and immediate reaction?

In the words of the poet Anais Nin, "We don't see things as they are; we see them as we are." Mine was a trivial example, but it showed me that buying into inaccurate labels can create significant dissonance between expectations and reality. If something relatively automatic like the sense of taste can be duped by subconscious assumptions, it made me wonder just how much my present perception is conditioned by past experience.

It also helped me realize that -- whether I know it or not -- I am subconsciously anticipating and "labeling" within every situation. With many experiences, before I even have them, I've already predicted the outcome and created an expectation that my prediction will come true. Every time I buy into outcomes in this way, I end up altering my reality without even knowing it.

The tendency to label also carries over to how we see people and relationships. "Our thoughts are unseen hands shaping the people we meet. Whatever we truly think them to be, that's what they'll become for us," says author Richard Cowper. In fact, it extends to every experience we encounter, and even our self-image.

A yoga teacher of mine was describing a class he held for girls struggling with anorexia. He asked them to stand hip-width and was shocked when all of them were standing with their feet as wide as the yoga mat. Their physical bodies were much thinner than what their mental perceptions told them. It isn't something that just afflicts these girls -- all of us fall prey to believing labels that define our self-image.

The problem isn't in the labels themselves, but in how conscious we are of them. Labels are just a mental shorthand for leveraging past experience, and preparing us for what lies in store. But when I am unconscious of these labels, I start believing them to be the full truth, when in reality they merely reflect my own conditioning. Then, instead of giving me a head start on gaining more information, labels collapse my experience and actually limit my opportunities to grow.

It's a subtle form of inner laziness, with a major downside. It severely diminishes my ability to learn new things because I've already forced a premature conclusion on my experience. So if I don't remain vigilant about the labels that come up in my mind, I end up blindly rehearsing my past interpretations. Each label also comes with its own bundle of associated assumptions. The result is that can I end up reinforcing a whole set of related beliefs.

It's a cycle: I label a situation, which directly affects my perception of the actual situation. I then react to both the label and the situation. That reaction, in turn, impacts how I label the situation in the next moment. In a recent talk at Google called "The Neuroscience of Personality," UCLA professor Dario Nardi describes seeing this very process in action while monitoring real-time brain activity in people. "Sometimes brain regions activate in a circuit pattern," he says, resulting in a variety of brain areas lighting up in a loop. We move from perceiving to recognizing to evaluating, and finally to reacting, looping back again to perceiving in quick succession.

In my experience, how much this loop repeats is directly related to how unbalanced we are in our mental reactions. The reactivity makes us narrow. Instead of taking in new information, we then reiterate our initial interpretation, regardless of accuracy. Before we know it, a tentative interpretation congeals into an unexamined judgment. The reality, though, is that we already have a host of such preconceived notions in place. So how can we break the chain?

It starts with being aware of the tendency to label. Though in and of themselves, labels aren't a problem; they become limitations when coupled with a strong sense of liking or disliking. We become attached to our unexamined convictions. More deeply, when coupled with emotion, labels activate something at the physical, sensation level. This "feeling" isn't just something abstract in the mind anymore: There is an actual, subtle, experience of sensations in the body, caused by a neuro-biological process, which gets activated with any emotion.

Most of us are generally unaware of this biochemically induced feeling. As a result, we become blind to the nuances of our experience and end up automatically reacting -- to the label and to its associated mind-body effects -- instead of freely and dynamically engaging with our reality. In effect, if I am not conscious of what makes up that internal feeling, then I don't see its effects and don't develop real choice.

To stop labels from becoming judgments is a practice and a process, eventually evolving into a radical realization: In any experience, if I can become aware of the labels that rise to the surface, I can then also tune into associated assumptions and actual feelings triggered at a subtler level. Then, by making an effort toward awareness and balance, I start to see where I can inject choice into the equation. That itself is the first taste of freedom, opening up into a space in which we experience things in a fresh, new way -- closer to the way they really are.