Sharpen Your Mental ‘Reflexes’

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What if, with a bit of strategy and up-front effort, you could do the tasks you do every day better and with greater ease? Here’s how.


Anyone who has ever been to the doctor for a physical exam knows something about reflexes. As you sit on the examining table with your legs crossed, the doctor taps just below your kneecap and if your neurons are in good repair, your lower leg jerks outward without any conscious direction from you.

While this literal ‘knee-jerk reaction’ is an interesting phenomenon by itself, it also demonstrates a fundamental principle of how human beings are put together. While we may take great pride in our relatively large brains and sophisticated cognitions, much of what happens in our bodies is handled locally, without any direct brain input.

Reflexes are useful for at least two reasons. The first is speed. If you accidentally touch a hot stove with your finger, the first sensation you witness is probably not heat or pain, but the sensation of your arm twitching away from the source of damage. In the case of the burned finger, it takes exactly three neurons to detect injury and activate muscles to stop it from getting any worse. Together these three neurons are said to form a ‘reflex arc’ that reaches no higher in the nervous system than the spinal column.

A second advantage of reflexes is their ability to do work without involving the brain. Wikipedia lists over forty different reflex actions that are important enough to have names. There’s just no reasonable way that putting all this computational load on the brain would leave us any room to think the abstract sorts of thoughts that only brains can think.


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A close analogy can be drawn between physical reflexes and the mental process of responding to triggers. Triggers most often come up in association to addiction. People hooked on alcohol or drugs come to associate certain environmental stimuli with use. One man with a drinking problem put it this way: “my car has a horrible steering problem: every time I drive past the liquor store, it pulls hard to the right.” All joking aside, this man was spot-on when he described the feeling that something beyond his conscious control was pushing him to turn when the trigger (the sight of the liquor store) occurred.

Not all triggers are negative. Sticking with our automotive theme, car manufacturers install a number of chimes and alerts into their vehicles to remind us to buckle our seat belts, take our keys from the ignition, and turn off our headlights before our batteries go dead. And it’s no mistake each of these alerts has a different-sounding chirp. By keeping each trigger distinct, we know which error we are about to make as soon as we hear the tone.

Triggers share the advantages of speed and automaticity with their cousins, reflexes, however they differ in one critical regard: reflexes are hard-wired into our neurology, whereas triggers can be created and extinguished, strengthened and weakened. Through repeated experience, we come to associate triggers with significant events, either positive or negative.

Like reflexes, we need triggers in our lives because there are just too many details to think about deliberately every moment of every day. Even the most mundane changes in behavior require attention and willpower to do what doesn’t come naturally at first. But creating good triggers can make change easier and longer-lasting.

Building Our Own Triggers

If I told you that you absolutely had to remember to bring a small package to work tomorrow, you’d probably use a strategy that included a trigger. Perhaps you’d put the package by the door or write yourself a note. Bitter experience teaches that saying “I know I’ll just remember it on my own” is a far-from-reliable strategy.

We are also often triggered by what is close at hand. Leave fruit on the kitchen table and you’re likely to eat more fruit. But leave brownies in the same place and your waistline is in danger of expanding.

Note-taking and list-making are other ways of creating triggers. The trouble with notes is that they’re often easily ignored. While the act of writing something down often has the side-effect of strengthening that concept in memory, using notes as a trigger often requires an added trigger to make sure that the note is reviewed at the appropriate time.

Our own actions can serve as triggers. Anyone who has ever seen the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television show knows what happens right after the languid introductory music and title sequence: Fred Rogers arrives at his soundstage home, takes off his jacket, dons a sweater and changes his shoes. Like Mr Rogers, many of us have specific rituals we do habitually in the morning, or perhaps before bed. Those simple habits, because they happen daily and automatically, often escape our notice, and yet they may have the largest impact on our health and happiness.

Speaking of morning rituals, there’s a morning trigger so pervasive we almost forget about it: the alarm clock. Most of us hate it, but we also depend on it to get us to work on time. Now with smartphones well on their way to being universal, these little slabs of technology have created a cluster of triggers in one on-the-go package. Many apps have their own triggers (or alerts) that beep, turn on alert lights, or otherwise try to get the user’s attention. Lots of my clients also use the ability to create many alarms, give them names, and have them repeat to create reliable time-based reminders for themselves to take their medicine, go to sleep on time, or just stop and breathe.

One thing I’m really excited about are location-specific triggers. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve arrived home only to realize I needed to pick up some groceries, and I had driven mindlessly by the store. GPS-enabled phones plus some smart software can now alert us not only at given times, but also at predetermined locations (like the grocery store.)

Although the methods and technologies change, the principle of designing and using triggers remains essentially the same. Because we often respond to triggers without conscious awareness, we can easily underestimate both their power over our actions and their utility in creating lasting change. The more good behaviors we can trigger, the less we need to expend our willpower and the greater chance that the changes will stick in the long term.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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