Can You Reprogram Your Brain Like a Computer? Science Promises Exciting New Possibilities for Mental Health
Can you really rewire your brain? Startling scientific discoveries give new hope for adolescents and teens that struggle with anxiety, bipolar disorder, behavior disorders, OCD, and other mental health issues. Recent research projects on the plasticity of the brain, show it can be much more resilient than previously thought. These studies also confirm the ability to successfully modify behavior with techniques like Cognitive Behavior Therapy. To demonstrate the adaptability of brain plasticity, a behavioral scientist offers an experiment you can try at home: Retrain your brain with his four basic steps.
The final frontier may not be out in space. It could be inside our minds. Advancements in brain study are continually disproving old theories and pointing the way to new possibilities with healing methods that involve neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity.
The Plastic Brain: Reset, Reprogram, Recovery
What is brain plasticity? On their website, Washington University’s Neuroscience For Kids page explains it this way: “It was once believed that as we aged, the brain’s networks became fixed. In the past two decades, however, an enormous amount of research has revealed that the brain never stops changing and adjusting. Learning requires the ability to acquire new knowledge or skills through instruction or experience. The capacity of the brain to change with learning is plasticity.”
Reshaping and Reconnecting the Plastic Brain
The Kavli prize for outstanding scientific work in neuroscience was recently awarded to three scientists for research in brain plasticity that they have been conducting for more than thirty years. The studies prove that previous concepts of human brain function were inaccurate, that the brain is not structured to function in a permanent way. The studies also led to Dr. Michael Merzenich’s development of the cochlear implant, a device that reconnects the ear to the brain and allows the deaf to hear. Merzenich’s pioneering work with brain training techniques, such as computer-driven mental and physical training programs, have also helped people with mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder.
Further experiments in brain training with robotics and visualization exercises have enabled paraplegics to experience the sensation of movement for the first time. The research subjects in one study reported that parts of their bodies seemed to “wake up.” Some were able to regain voluntary movement and the sense of touch.
These notable advancements in the understanding of our brains confirm the idea that we can improve our daily lives through brain training. What this ultimately means, is that when you change your mind, you can literally change your brain. Brain training, in its simplest terms, comes down to training yourself to think differently. One of best practical examples of thinking differently, as a guided process, is CBT, or cognitive behavior therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the theory that what we think and how we act directly influences the way we feel. By altering thinking that is distorted, and behavior that is not productive to our needs, we can actually change our emotions, and ultimately, our lives. With adolescents and teens, focusing primarily on the behavioral element of CBT can produce faster results when they are in treatment programs. The goal in most cases is to unlearn unwanted behavior.
CBT has long been a very effective tool in the treatment of mental health disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or eating disorders. But you don’t have to suffer from a mental health condition to benefit from CBT. It can also help someone learn how to manage stress more productively in daily situations.
A common technique in CBT for adolescents with anxiety disorders is called Exposure and Response Prevention. The basic concept involves exposing kids to the issues that trigger their anxiety in small, measured steps, within a safe environment. As they become familiar to each of the triggers, these adolescents discover their anxiety diminishes, and they feel strong enough to tackle other powerful obstacles in their lives.
Unlocking the Brain
Writer Matthew E. May’s fascination with brain plasticity led him to interview UCLA neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, author of the book, Brainlock. Schwartz treats people with obsessive-compulsive disorders without prescribing drugs. He teaches them to rewire their brains by changing the way they think.
In the Open Forum, May writes, “I’m interested in Dr. Schwartz’s methods not because I’m curious about OCD, but because if he can help people with that kind of mental rigidity, think what can be done with the mind that isn’t all locked up. He created a successful four-step approach, and as he described it to me, it seemed quite obvious that his method could easily apply to anything we want to change.”
Schwartz’s 4 Steps to Change Your Brain Change Your Mental Disorder
“The first step is to re-label a given thought, feeling, or behavior as something else. An unwanted thought could be relabeled ‘false message’ or ‘brain glitch.” This amounts to training yourself to clearly recognize and identify what is real and what isn’t, refusing to be tricked by your own thoughts. You step back and say, ‘This is just my brain sending me a false message.’ For someone with OCD, instead of saying, ‘I have to check the stove,’ they would start saying, ‘I am having a compulsive urge to check the stove.’”
This sounds easy, almost a trite affirmation, like what they give you at one of those weekend long shut-ins where you transform yourself into the someone you always thought you could be. It isn’t. It’s hard. Focusing on something completely different when your brain is sending long-embedded directions with overwhelming force, is incredibly difficult.”
“The second step answers the question, ‘Why do these thoughts coming back?’ The answer is that the brain is misfiring, stuck in gear, creating mental noise, and sending false messages. In other words, if you understand why you’re getting those old thoughts, eventually you’ll be able to say, ‘Oh, that’s just a brain glitch.’ That raises the natural next question: What can you do about it?”
“The third step is where the toughest work is, because it’s the actual changing of behavior. You have to do another behavior instead of the old one. Having recognized the problem for what it is and why it’s occurring, you now have to replace the old behavior with new things to do. This is where the change in brain chemistry occurs, because you are creating new patterns, new mindsets. By refusing to be misled by the old messages, by understanding they aren’t what they tell you they are, your mind is now the one in charge of your brain.
This is basically like shifting the gears of your car manually. ‘The automatic transmission isn’t working, so you manually override it.” With positive, desirable alternatives -they can be anything you enjoy and can do consistently each and every time -you are actually repairing the gearbox. The more you do it, the smoother the shifting becomes. Like most other things, the more you practice, the more easy and natural it becomes, because your brain is beginning to function more efficiently, calling up the new pattern without thinking about it.”
“It all comes together in the fourth step, which is the natural outcome of the first three. With a consistent way to replace the old behavior with the new, you begin to see old patterns as simple distractions. You devalue them as being completely worthless. Eventually the old thoughts begin to fade in intensity, the brain works better, and the automatic transmission in the brain begins to start working properly.
Two very positive things happen. The first is that you’re happier, because you have control over your behavioral response to your thoughts and feelings. The second thing is that by doing that, you change the faulty brain chemistry.”
Schwartz is convinced that his methods could be used to make change in any area of your life. “Since it has been scientifically demonstrated that the brain has been altered through the behavior change, it’s safe to say that you could do the same thing by altering responses to any number of other behaviors.”
Do You Need to Change Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and Change Your Behavior?
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World Economic Forum: Brain plasticity explained: yes, you really can change your brain, by Alex Gray. Retrieved October 7, 2016.
Open Forum: The Neuroscience Of Change – Or How To Reset Your Brain, by Matthew E. May. Retrieved October 7, 2016.
Washington University – Neuroscience for Kids- Brain Plasticity: What Is It?. Retrieved October 7, 2016.
Child Mind Institute: Behavioral Treatment for Kids With Anxiety, by Jerry Bubrick, PhD. Retrieved October 7, 2016.