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.

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