Book Review: You are Not Your Brain

George developed OCD in college. He recounts: “I started getting these weird thoughts. I remember the first one: If I did not put something a certain way, someone in my family would die.” As time went on,

he had a growing sense that the… brain messages were false and that the feared outcomes wouldn’t come true, but he couldn’t resist the impulses to check or arrange.

Steve had a reputation for being the “answer man” at his company. Over time, he came to feel that nobody ever solved anything for themselves. He lost respect for their neediness and felt overwhelmed. When he went home, his family’s demands began to seem like more neediness. One relaxing drink became two became, eventually, full-fledged alcoholism.

Yet both, according to the authors of You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life, were able to overcome these formidable challenges by applying the Four Steps contained in the book.

Brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to form new connections and create new patterns of behavior – is something of a hot subject right now, but the articles I’ve seen about it usually seem to take a cheerleading, big-picture “You can change for the better!” approach. This book delves into how the brain can be changed, and how, if you aren’t paying attention, the changes may not always be positive, before laying out four steps for consciously and positively changing the brain.

Neuroplasticity is operating all the time, which means that if you repeatedly engage in the same behaviors (even something as benign as checking your email several times a day), neuroplasticity will designate that action as the preferred one, regardless of the effect of that behavior on you or your life. In a very real way, the actions you perform now and how you focus your attention have downstream effects on how your brain is wired and how you will automatically respond to deceptive brain messages and events in the future.

In spite of the somewhat new-agey terminology the authors use (deceptive brain messages; Wise Advocate; true self), the book seems solid in its science and reasoning and it has helped me to understand several things that previously eluded me.

For instance, I had heard before that “should” and “should not” are unhealthy words to use to yourself unless you are actually discussing a moral imperative (“I should not lie” is fine; “I should do the laundry/work harder/be a better person” is not), but could not accept this. The book helped me see it more accurately. This passage is about the first few weeks post-stroke for a woman who was determined to walk again even though her doctors said she never would:

When she could not achieve what she wanted, Connie’s deceptive brain message swooped in and told her she should be able to do it – thereby implying that something was wrong with her. This caused the uncomfortable sensations of anger and frustration to rise in Connie – negative sensations that she wanted to be free from immediately. Her desire for relief was high and her expectation of achieving her goal, which had switched from completing the therapy exercise to feeling better immediately, was low. As long as she maintained the unrealistic expectation to get rid of those uncomfortable sensations and feel better, she was stuck and would feel worse. Instead, when she called the sensations what they were – anger and frustration – she was able to switch gears and focus her attention on a realistic expectation, such as completing the therapy exercise one more time for the day or switching to another exercise that was similar but easier for her to complete.

After that, I understood why I had always had two different mindsets about myself, especially professionally. On the one hand I received a great deal of praise and trust, and I knew I was good. Yet I was plagued by a constant sense of failure: I should have been able to take on another project, I should have foreseen that snag, I should have been able to convince the entire company of the importance of involving Marketing early.

Whether the Four Steps will totally eradicate that remains to be seen – full disclosure: I have not completed the program yet – but just seeing the “should’s” for what they are has brought a measure of peace.

In short, I would recommend this book for anyone who has a habit they would like to break (procrastination included!) or an unhappy thought-pattern. It can’t hurt, and putting effort into change is a good indicator that change will happen.

Friends & Family

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship lately: what a blessing it is to have true friends, and what a long journey it is sometimes to find out who they are.

My current definition of a real friend: Continue reading “Friends & Family”

Dialogue Rules

(This blog is about fiction-writing techniques and is a departure from my usual subject-matter. If this isn’t of interest, feel free to skip until next time!)

One of the things I particularly struggle with in fiction writing is dialogue. Considering how much of our lives we spend blabbing to each other, it doesn’t seem like it should be hard to create realistic dialogue on the page… but it is. Continue reading “Dialogue Rules”

The Rapey Boy of 21st St

He wants it intensely. No matter how many times you say “no” or try to push him away, he keeps coming back, holding your leg, pressing himself against you. He has needs. How can you be so cruel as to deny them?

Readers may be relieved to know at this point that I am not describing a human assailant or an even slightly traumatic experience. Rather, I am talking about my puppy’s desire to get on the couch with me. Continue reading “The Rapey Boy of 21st St”

Book Review: Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon

luciaI have the terrible wonderful habit of browsing the books for sale whenever I’m in a thrift store or library; I like inviting serendipity. I don’t remember where or when I found this biography, but it was definitely serendipity; my taste for personal histories, especially of women, would have been enough to pick it up, but the ability to justify it as a possible source for research – and, better still, a source for the sort of details of everyday life in historic Europe that are so hard to come by – made it an easy sale.

Any reservations I had came from the fact that Andrea di Robilant is Lucia’s descendant. On the one hand, there’s romance in the “long-lost story discovered in family archives,” but on the other – mightn’t it be vanity publishing, making a book out of nothing very much? It was, however, cool that the portrait on the cover is indeed of her – a portrait that was deemed lost until he tracked it down. (This would be a bit too much National Treasure if it did not become apparent in the telling of the story that, because it was not a major work, nobody had ever bothered to go looking before.)

But, anyhow, I bought it and read it and enjoyed every minute of it, and it vastly exceeded anything I hoped it would be. I also found myself confronting a number of common myths about the past and even discovering a few surprising facts we don’t often consider at all. Here are a few: Continue reading “Book Review: Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon”

Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil

When I made the goal of posting once per month this year, part of the intention was to blow through some of the backlog of abandoned post ideas. Accordingly, a few months ago I read through the over 50 pieces sitting in the Blog folder. A majority were fragmentary, things I didn’t have any really developed thoughts about at the time and which, on review, I still don’t have much to say about; those were discarded. A handful were worthy of further development. And one or two were more or less completed but, for whatever reason, never quite satisfactory and never posted.

This is one of them.

It’s a bit odd to reread something I had no memory of and which is completely, absolutely out of date. Nearly 6 years after writing it, neither of the relationships written about in it still exist, or exist in the form written about. The questions asked are not ones I would ask now. Or rather – it is not the way I would ask them. And I think that is progress, which is about the only reason I’m mustering the courage to toss this out into the world at last. Continue reading “Throwback Thursday: Knowledge of Good and Evil”

With Liberty and Justice For All

I had a vague idea I might do something about Independence Day for my July post, but we were busily on vacation and there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted to say, anyway, so I let it slide. In fact, my muse didn’t show up until a few days before the end of the month (right around the time a client requested that I do three months’ worth of work in the space of two weeks, which I take as more than excuse enough for this post being late), and when she did, she wasn’t bearing tidy platitudes. But she sure had something to say about Freedom. Continue reading “With Liberty and Justice For All”

Never a Good Time

The book club I’m part of has one very convenient feature: two of our members are Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library librarians. They label and check out our books for us, and when book club is over, they gather them up and return them. So last month, when it happened that neither librarian could attend, we all looked at each other blankly and asked ourselves, “How will the books get back?” Lisa volunteered to take them.

There was no particular reason that Lisa should have been the one to do it. Continue reading “Never a Good Time”

Letter to No One

Dear Friend,

It has been far too long since we’ve talked – or rather written. I miss our old exchange of ideas, the conversation, the flow of words, the surprising revelations that only written thoughts make possible.

Oh, Facebook can be very charming. I appreciate the news of babies I would not have heard of, job successes and health problems and hilarious videos and pictures. I enjoy all of this. The trouble is, Continue reading “Letter to No One”

You Are = You Do = Love (or not)

In January I read an article titled “6 Harsh Truths to Make You a Better Person”. It’s written in a style that is deliberately confrontational and provocative, but that’s because it’s meant to jolt readers off their butts and get them to do something. If you can’t get past the tone to the underlying truth of the article, go sit in your room for a couple of years and then try it again when you’re ready. I’ve read it about four times since I discovered it. Continue reading “You Are = You Do = Love (or not)”