How to retrain your brain

I was talking to a friend about how to change our view of the world, and found myself coming up with a theory of how mystical woo woo advice like “be the change you want to see” or “manifest what you desire” actually might be scientifically explainable.

Disclaimer: I am not a neuroscientist, and have only read a couple pop science books and articles on the topic, so this may induce in others the wince I feel as a former physicist when people try to use quantum mechanics to justify such advice because they once read an article about entanglement and superposition (those words do not mean what people think they mean!). But let’s continue!

I think that there are two principles at work here.

  1. Neurons that fire together, wire together. In other words, our brains are pattern matching machines that constantly learn through feedback. When we do something repeatedly, the neurons involved in that action are reinforced to keep doing that. This is how we develop muscle memory, and unconscious competence, such that our body responds instantly without thought when we experience the set of inputs similar to what we have trained on. In other words, practice makes permanent.
  2. We only consciously experience a tiny fraction of what is around us. Our conscious mind is actually a very tiny porthole through which to view the world, because it has extremely limited processing power (20-40 bits/second according to The User Illusion). The unconscious brain sorts through the tidal wave of inputs arriving every second (~11 million bits/second), and bubbles up to consciousness an extremely abstracted condensed version of reality based on previous experiences, a map of the territory, if you will. We are rarely consciously experiencing reality as it is, but instead we are experiencing reality through a filter built from our past experiences and our attention.

The second point means we can change the conscious reality we experience in the future by what we do in the present. In other words, we can redesign the filter through which the conscious brain experiences reality by focusing our attention on different things to retrain the unconscious neural processing of inputs. A common version of this is the new car phenomenon where after we research a particular car, we start to see it everywhere, because we have primed our brain to look for it.

A more troubling version is that if we have been harmed in the past, our brain is primed to look for threats so that we don’t get harmed again. We want to feel safe but we “know” the world is dangerous, so we try to ensure our safety by anticipating every danger that could affect us. And over time, that is the filter through which we view the world; we have trained our neural networks to focus on threats first before anything else.

But then we experience the world as very dangerous! All we see with our conscious mind are threats! That reinforces our paranoia and our sense of danger, so we look even harder for threats so that we can come up with a plan to keep ourselves safe from those threats. And as we look harder, we notice and experience more threats, and now we are in a vicious self-reinforcing loop.

So how do we get out of the loop? We have to consciously retrain the filter our unconscious brain is using. And here we return to point 1 above; deliberate practice is how we retrain the brain, because if we consistently practice something, the neurons associated with those actions get wired together to make the new behavior more efficient in the future. Anders Ericsson has shown that deliberate practice can be used to develop a world-class memory, and by musicians and athletes to hone their skills, and suggests that we can get better at any skill if we intentionally practice it by pushing ourselves into the zone of productive discomfort.

What does that practice look like in the threats example? It could be as simple as practicing gratitude or a practice of noticing what brings us joy. By taking a few minutes each day to consciously notice and write down the good things in the world and in our life, we are (a) disrupting the filter in place that the world consists only of threats, and (b) building a new attention filter which bubbles up moments of joy and gratitude to our consciousness. As we continue practicing, it becomes easier to notice good things happening because we are building a joy and gratitude filter. We can still put on the threat filter when necessary, but now we have a choice.

I think this lens of attention and practice can explain how “manifest what you desire” may actually work. If you are clear on what you want, you can retrain your brain to notice opportunities for that and bubble those up to consciousness so you can take action on them. And as you practice seeing and acting on those opportunities and celebrate your successes, you are reinforcing those neural networks to look for more of those opportunities and take the actions in response. In other words, you are reprogramming yourself with a new identity, so that the new patterns become your default, rather than requiring conscious practice.

That being said, it takes more than setting an intention to “manifest what you desire”. It requires conscious, deliberate practice to consistently place your attention every day on the area you want to change. It requires learning to be present to what’s actually happening, rather than responding on unconscious autopilot. Without that intentional effort, you will not rewire your neural networks, and thus will be subject to your previous filters and reactions, and then wonder why nothing ever changes.

What do you think? Does this explanation match your experience? What patterns have you rewired in your brain, and what helped you do that?

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