Until just a few decades ago, science had led us to believe that we were doomed by genetics, hobbled by conditioning, and should resign ourselves to the proverbial thinking about old dogs not being able to learn new tricks. However, what I’ve discovered in studying the brain and its effects on behaviour for the last 20 years has made me enormously hopeful about human beings and our ability to change. We have just needed to know how to change, and today, neuroscience has a very solid explanation for how mind over matter works; it’s no longer a pie-in-the-sky concept. The science of changing our mind is now available, and I wrote Evolve Your Brain to help make this science accessible to everyone.
Many of us learned in school that once we become adults, the brain is static and rigid. How much potential do we have to change our brain?
Those of us who went to school 20 or 30 years ago were taught that the brain is hardwired, meaning that by the time we’re adults, we have a certain number of brain cells that are arranged in fixed patterns or neural circuits, and that as we get older, we lose some of those circuits. We thought that we would inevitably turn out like our parents in many ways, because we could only use the same neural patterns that we genetically inherited from them.
Neuroscientists now say that was a mistake. The great news is that each of us is a work in progress, throughout life. Every time we have a thought, different areas of our brain surge with electrical current and release a mob of neurochemicals that are too numerous to name. Thanks to functional brain scanning technology, we can now see that our every thought and experience causes our brain cells, or neurons, to connect and disconnect in ever-changing patterns and sequences. In fact, we have a natural ability called neuroplasticity, which means that if we learn new knowledge and have new experiences, we can develop new networks or circuits of neurons, and literally change our mind.
So, why is it hard for us to change?
In my practice as well as my personal life, I have seen that change isn’t easy.
When people want to commit to a goal, they start out with good intentions and ideas, but quite often they go back to their unwanted habits. The concept of change means that we are going to do something differently within the same environment; we’re not going to respond to our environment with our customary thoughts and reactions. That, however, is easier said than done. Many of us tend to think the same thoughts, have the same feelings, and follow the same routines in our life. The rub is, this causes us to keep using the same patterns and combinations of neural circuits in our brain, and they tend to become hardwired.
This is how we create habits of thinking, feeling, and doing. Don’t get me wrong, hardwiring isn’t a bad thing. Thanks to hardwiring, when we learn a new skill such as driving a car, the more we practise, the more we hardwire what we learn into our brain’s circuits, and eventually we can operate a car automatically. But if we want to change something in our life, we have to cause the brain to no longer fire in the same old sequences and combinations. We have to create a new level of mind by disconnecting the old neural circuits and rewiring our brain in new patterns of nerve cell connections.
The good news we’re learning from the latest brain research is that we can change the brain and thus change ourselves, if we take just a few simple steps. Evolve Your Brain will take the reader step by step through the knowledge and “how-to” steps needed to change any area of our life.
The mind can physically modify the body. In the book I talk about a man I called Tom, who developed one digestive ailment after another. This finally led him to examine his life, and he realised he had been suppressing feelings of anger and desperation over being in a job that made him miserable. Tom’s mind and body were in a feedback loop of thinking and feeling that amounted to toxic attitudes that his body just “couldn’t stomach”. He had been living in a state of being revolving around victimisation. His healing finally began when he paid attention to his habitual thoughts and realised that his unconscious attitudes were the basis for the person he had become.
There is significant scientific evidence suggesting that the mind has a direct effect on the body…both for better and for worse. Research demonstrates that we can cause our bodies to be sick just by the anticipation of a future event or the memory of a past experience. In both cases, it is our thoughts that are creating powerful chemicals of stress to alter most of the systems in our body. So what we think about and the intensity of these thoughts directly influences our health, the choices we make, and our quality of life.
What, then is the mind, and how is it related to the brain?
Now that we have the technology to observe a living brain, we know from functional brain scans that the mind is the brain in action. This is the latest definition of mind, according to neuroscience. When a brain is alive and active, it can process thought, learn new information, invent new ideas, master skills, recall memories, express feelings, refine movements, and maintain the orderly functioning of the body. The animated brain can also facilitate behaviour, dream, perceive reality, and most important, embrace life. In order for the mind to exist, then, the brain must be alive.
The brain is therefore not the mind; it is the physical apparatus through which the mind is produced. The brain facilitates mind. We can think of the brain as an intricate data processing system that enables us to gather, process, store, recall, and communicate information within seconds, if need be, as well as to forecast, hypothesise, respond, behave, plan, and reason. The brain is also the control centre through which the mind coordinates all of the metabolic functions necessary for life and survival. So when your bio-computer is “turned on” or alive, and it is functioning by processing information, it produces the mind.
The brain has three individual anatomical structures with which it produces different aspects of mind. We also have a conscious mind and a subconscious mind, and both are the result of a brain that is coordinating thought impulses through its various regions and substructures. Therefore, there are many diverse states of mind, because we can easily make the brain work in different ways.
What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is our natural ability to change how the brain’s neurons are connected and organised into circuits, which we call its synaptic wiring. Every time we learn something new or have a novel experience, the brain makes new synaptic connections to form new neural patterns or networks—and this happens at any age. When we utilise new circuits in new ways, we rewire the brain to fire in new sequences. From a neurological level, then, we are changed moment to moment by the thoughts we think, the information we learn, the events we experience, the reactions we have, the feelings we create, the memories we process, and even the dreams we embrace. All of these alter the way the brain works, producing new states of mind that are recorded in our brain.
Neuroplasticity is an innate, universal genetic feature in humans. It affords us the privilege to learn from experiences in our environment, so that we may change our actions and modify our behaviour, our thought processes, and our personality to produce outcomes that are more desirable. Merely to learn intellectual information is not enough; we must apply what we learn to create a different experience. If we could not synaptically rewire our brain, we could not change in response to our experiences. Without the ability to change, we could not evolve, and we would be at the effect of our genetic predispositions.
How neuroplastic our own brain is depends on our ability to change our perception of the world around us, to change our mind, to change our self.
What is mental rehearsal and how can we use it to change?
Mental rehearsal allows us to change our brain—to create a new level of mind—without doing anything physical other than thinking. It involves mentally seeing and experiencing our “self” demonstrating or practising a skill or habit or state of being of our own choosing. Through mental rehearsal, we can employ the advanced faculties of our frontal lobe to make significant changes in our life.
Several studies have shown that the brain does not know the difference between what it is thinking internally and what it is experiencing in its external environment. In one experiment, two groups of non-pianists were asked to learn one-handed piano exercises and to practise two hours a day for five days—with one important difference. One group physically practised their exercises, while the other mentally rehearsed the same exercises without using their fingers. At the end of the five days, brain scans showed that both groups grew the same amount of new brain circuits. How is that possible?
We know that when we think the same thoughts or perform the same actions over and over, we repeatedly stimulate specific networks of neurons in particular areas of our brain. As a result, we build stronger, more enriched connections between these groups of nerve cells. This concept in neuroscience is called Hebbian learning. The idea is simple: Nerve cells that fire together, wire together.
According to functional brain scans in this particular experiment, the subjects that mentally rehearsed were so inwardly focused that their brain did not know the difference between the internal and the external world. Thus, they were activating their brain in the same way as if they were actually playing the piano. In fact, their brain circuits strengthened and developed in the same area of the brain as the group that physically practised.
This is a powerful demonstration. It suggests that we can form new brain circuits either by intentionally thinking thoughts or by physically demonstrating actions. It makes us wonder about what we are mentally rehearsing and physically practicing on a daily basis. If we keep mentally rehearsing the same thought patterns of suffering, victimization, lack, etc. on a daily basis, we assuredly will wire our brain to be equal to who we have practiced becoming.
You say in the book that thinking isn’t enough to change our mind, and that change is a process of thinking, doing, and then being. Can you explain how this works?
The change we want to make has to go beyond thinking and even doing—we need to go all the way to being. If I want to truly be a pianist, I will start by acquiring knowledge, which involves thinking. Then I can start to gain experience through mental rehearsal, which again involves thinking. I also have to involve the body in the act of doing—physically demonstrating what I’ve intellectually learned—by playing the piano. But that isn’t going far enough. Imagine a concert pianist who does her best work in practice sessions, but struggles during a concert. Or to bring this a little closer to home, imagine a spouse who is the model of understanding on the drive home from work, but devolves into an impatient pouter as soon as he or she comes through the door.
If I want to attain the state of being a pianist, my evolved understanding and my skills must become so hardwired and mapped into my brain that I no longer have to consciously think about playing, because my subconscious mind now handles that skill. Now that I am being a pianist, any thought I have about playing, or desire to express my feelings through music, will automatically turn my body on to carry out the task of playing the piano. We talk at length in Evolve Your Brain about how we use different kinds of memory, activating different parts of the brain, to make conscious thoughts, subconscious thoughts.
We also learn that to master any particular ability also takes possessing a great deal of knowledge about a subject, receiving expert instruction in that area, and having plenty of experiences to provide us with feedback.
We all go from thinking to doing to being, every time we learn a skill so well that we can do it automatically. Driving is a great example. The beauty of this process is that we can use it to attain any state of being we choose, from being more patient with our children to being healthy to being a happy person.
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