Neurons fight amongst each other for attention from other neurons. At any given moment a few of these neurons are winning and they impact an animal’s behaviour. This is referred to as selective signal enhancement. This process repeats through multiple levels. Simple neural circuits compete for attention, the winners triggering more complex neural circuits which compete for attention, and so on and so forth. These complex neural circuits end up as even more complex circuits which act as controllers, or coordinators, for multiple circuits. And once again, they determine behaviour (which for our purposes here is the same as focusing attention).
The more often a given neural circuit fires, the more efficient it becomes, giving it an advantage when it comes to shouting over other circuits. It becomes easier for it to do what it does with its electrons and neurotransmitters. And this is how habits form. They are literally what has become the path of least resistance for impulses in our brain to follow.
Also, the more “primitive” a circuit is, the louder it is able to shout, presumably because the most primitive circuits developed earliest in our evolution and kept us alive. Hence pain, flight or fight, instinctive pulling away from fire.
At any given time, there are multiple circuits fighting to be on top. Using our senses as an example – our eyes see many things. If we are reading a book we have circuits that have consciously focused our eyes there. The incoming information that is winning the battle is the circuit providing the visual of the writing. However, we may see something out of the corner of our eye. Those are competing circuits. Sudden movement out of the corner of the eye when unexpected causes these circuits to gain attention and we focus there.
When we are at a party and we focus our attention on what the person opposite us is saying, or we are in front of someone but listening to a person at another table, this is us using selective signal enhancement.
And then these combine so we are looking and listening and touching and smelling and all of these are being processed. Only the strongest of signals make it into our consciousness. The rest, the background noise if you will, are part of our subconscious.
In my theory of mind, this process takes place with nearly everything we do. Behaviours, emotions, thoughts, sensory perceptions, autonomic processes, everything. And the winning patterns determine the resultant physical or psychological response.
By adjusting the amplitude of certain circuits through repetition or stimulation, we are able to change what we think, do, or perceive. Similarly, by stimulating circuits which may share many cells or run close to other circuits, we are able to increase the efficacy of both – but the “secondary” circuit to a lesser degree. This is why framing is such a key tool in hypnosis.
Essentially, you have a system of local neurons holding elections, and the winners holding elections among themselves, and those winners holding elections all the way up to the point where the final winner is the one that makes something happen.