If You Want to Change, Train Your Brain

“We make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars;” –Shakespeare

In Shakespeare’s time, people blamed the stars for their problems. Today scientists tell us either that our brain has been pre-programmed by evolution, or shaped by our environment, or both, and therefore operates on auto-pilot. According to all of this, we are not responsible for our actions or our personalities.

“No basis for discussion can be found with anyone who believes that mind and brain are separate” says neurologist Mark Hallet in a recent article.

I like to read about the brain. It is relevant to my work in education. I compare what I read to my own experience. Life may be full of illusions, but I like my illusions, especially those that work for me.

Unlike Hallet, I do separate my mind from my brain. I talk to myself and I tell my brain what to do. I think that my conscious desires and intentions influence the activity of my brain.

As a child of 10 or so, I admired my father’s ability to wiggle his ears. I wanted very badly to do the same. At first I could not. So I just sat there for hours, sometimes while watching television, just telling my brain to get going and start moving my ears. Eventually the brain gave in. I succeeded, through will power, in training my brain.

Certainly genetics and circumstances have influenced my personality and my values. If I had not seen my father wiggle his ears, I would probably still be unable to do so. Maybe I am genetically preconditioned to be stubborn. I know full well that my brain was not born a “clean slate”, and that family, friends and culture have influenced who I am. But I still feel I am in control of what I do.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said; “In our power are conception, effort, desire, aversion and… our actions.” On the other hand, success, health, wealth and reputation are outside our control, so Epictetus said not to worry about them.

However, for most people, success matters. The desire for self-improvement is usually aimed at achieving success, or better health or some similar goal. But most of us have trouble following through on good advice. It is not enough to know that we should avoid rich foods, or exercize more, or be neat, or set priorities. Somehow we have to get our brain to cooperate, since our brain often seems to have a mind of its own, preventing us from changing our habits.

To change our habits we first need to stop blaming ourselves and start working on our brain. We can influence the workings of our brain with our will power. Our brain is not hard-wired. Neuro-plasticity is the scientific term for the fact that our brain is constantly adapting and changing and recreating itself. Our determination and intent are forms of neural activity that influence the brain. Our conscious self can impose its will on the brain.

In “The Mind and the Brain“, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a research psychiatrist at UCLA, outlines his theory and clinical experience of how will power can overcome Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

The first step for Schwartz’s patients is to recognize that a behavior pattern exists as a network of neural activity, independently of the their will. It is not the patient that has a bad habit, it is the brain. The brain has to be brought to heel, to be trained. This is done with concentrated intent and determination. That is what I did when I trained my brain to wiggle my ears.

Schwartz describes four steps in helping people overcome such compulsive needs as the desire to wash their hands every five minutes. His four steps are called Relabel, Reattribute , Refocus,and Revalue, and consist of:

  1. Understanding the problem as a faulty pattern in the brain.
  2. Separating this pattern from any sense of self-guilt.
  3. Focusing on actions that replace the undesired behavior.
  4. Changing how the undesirable behavior is valued.

In other words, you train yourself not to binge on chocolate sundaes or procrastinate any more, and your brain develops a new value system that no longer rewards that activity.I have found it comforting and effective to see my bad habits, not as the disappointing proof of my weakness, but as objective neural activity that I can train my brain to change, if my desire is strong enough. I have found intent and will power important in all learning activities, even at my age. It is never too late to learn new skills or to challenge old habits!

Steve Kaufmann is a former Canadian diplomat, who has had his own company in the international trade of forest products for over 20 years. Steve founded The Linguist Institute Ltd. in 2002 to develop a new approach to language learning using the web. The new LingQ system for learning multiple languages is now available in Beta. Steve speaks nine languages fluently and is currently learning Russian using LingQ. Steve maintains a blog on language learning.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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