Writer: Steph Vermeulen

Ever wondered why it’s so difficult to change some of our stickier habits – even when we know these habits are bad for us. The good news is, our lack of resolve has little to do with flagging willpower and lots to do with flawed brain wiring. This is according to two doctors – Jeffery Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding – who claim in their book: You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life that brain wiring boils down to nothing more than Hebb’s Law: brain cells that fire together, wire together.

False perceptions

This simple process helps explain many inaccurate perceptions we hold of ourselves. Look at these different reactions to two smart kids; the first gets plenty of praise, regularly receives rewards and often hears positive predictions about his/her future. The second is dismissed with comments like; ‘nobody likes a smart-ass’ and this child is belittled and put-down for questioning everything. Different thoughts, feelings and reactions will wire together which, in the first child, could lead to confidence while in the second could produce timid and reserved behaviour. Neither child had anything to do with the input they were receiving, making the wiring of the brain a passive process.

True or factual?

Scientists now know what was once attributed to fixed personality traits is nothing more than brain wiring and the various conclusions your brain holds about you may seem true but they’re not necessarily factual. These are ‘deceptive brain messages’; inaccurate thoughts or unhelpful urges that take you away from your true intentions.

Brain or true self?

Schwartz & Gladding warn that confusing the biology of the brain with our true self (residing in the mind) leads to the development of habits and compulsions as follows:

Deceptive brain messages arise – ‘I’m not good enough / successful enough / sexy enough’ – and activate the alarm-centre which generates intensely uncomfortable sensations – anxiety, fatigue, agitation, lethargy or hopelessness – which, in turn, drive an urgent desire to make these horrible feelings go away. Habits form when the numbing behaviour is repeated such as reaching for a smoke, a drink or drug, having sex or going shopping, eating, dieting or purging, fighting or arguing or even avoiding unpleasant but beneficial things like exercise.

Brain plasticity

Neuroplasticity operates all the time, which means that if you repeatedly engage in the same behaviours (even something as benign as regularly checking e-mail), brain-plasticity will designate that action as the preferred one, regardless of the effect of that behaviour on you and your life.

We start breaking bad habits by identifying the deceptive messages contained in our negative self-talk.

Changing your mind

Instead of indulging these ‘monsters’, Schwartz & Gladding suggest a four-step process which, if repeated sufficiently, can change our mind by rewiring new, more beneficial behaviours:

Step 1: Relabel – Identify your deceptive brain messages and the uncomfortable sensations these produce; call them what they really are i.e. wiring in my brain.

Step 2: Reframe – Change your perception of the importance of the deceptive brain messages by constantly affirming, ‘It’s not ME, it’s my BRAIN!’

Step 3: Refocus – Refuse to act on deceptive messages by directing your attention toward an activity or thought that is more wholesome (even if the deceptive thoughts and urges are still bothering you).

Step 4: Revalue – See the thoughts, urges, and impulses for what they are, they are something to dismiss, not focus upon.

A quickie

I prefer quickies and believe all four steps can be condensed into the middle two: Relabel and Refocus. Either way, the trick of refocusing the mind makes the problem with willpower clear; willpower actively focuses on not indulging the habit and therefore, unwittingly engages the mind in strengthening the wiring of the very addiction or compulsion we are trying to break i.e. ‘don’t smoke, don’t check that porn site or don’t eat that scrumptious looking piece of cake.’

Sensations are the monsters, not emotions

Schwartz & Gladding also distinguish between emotions and the uncomfortable sensations produced by deceptive brain messages: Emotions should be felt and constructively dealt with because they honour your true needs and true self, whereas emotional sensations are the ‘monsters’ evoked by deceptive brain messages and should be relabelled and refocused.

The book is very practical and filled with far more gems than could possibly be condensed into such a review. It’s a worthwhile read if you want to take your life back from your brain, change habits, addictions, or deal with anxiety, depression or compulsive disorders (OCD).

To learn more about changing your mind by changing your wiring, invite Steph to speak at your next conference or contract with her for a comprehensive training session which prepares people psychologically to welcome change and – in the process – makes everyone smarter and more functional.