Change Your Brain


Personality is like a deck of cards. You are dealt a hand at conception, and life experiences determine which genetic cards will be turned up and therefore what the nature of your normal experience will be. It represents the orderly arrangement of all your attributes thoughts, feelings, functioning–the way you think, feel, and behave–that makes you definitely you. 

But for most people, it is not–it need not be-a life sentence, a rigid template that determines what will befall you.  It is your way of being, of becoming, and of meeting life’s challenges.  Most people have a built-in flexibility factor that allows them to learn to deal with the hurdles thrown in their path.  As life goes on, they learn to adapt to change, which makes a variety of experiences and expressions of themselves possible.  So yes, normally personality modifies throughout life.

Still, sometimes you may want to accelerate this modification process, get out of a rut, hasten change.  That means changing your brain. 

Numerous studies show that psychotherapy works.  So do training in yoga and meditation and exercise and new health habits, as well as medication and profound life experience–anything that spurs your brain to, in effect, learn a new language.  And this learning process literally changes the structure and functioning of the brain.   Here’s how.

Think of the difference between short-term and long-term memory.  Remember a killer exam in college that you had to pass?  You pulled an all-nighter, cramming for the exam, and you not only passed it but you got a pretty good grade, right?  Now think of some of the things you learned while preparing for that exam. The reason why you can’t is because this kind of learning is transient; it involves stuffing as much information as possible into short-term retention, a memory capacity that is engineered to help us hold things in focus only while needed.  It is mediated by neurotransmitters—biochemicals that help cells communicate with one another.

In contrast, long-term memory, through work, practice, persistence, and patience, initiates changes in the structure of the brain cells, even, as we now know, stimulating the creation of new ones throughout the life span.   Enriched connectivity among these neurons results, and new abilities can develop from these changes.  Researchers in neuropsychiatric laboratories are demonstrating that learning and significant experience can trigger previously unexpressed potentials that may have been encoded in our genes from the start.  Neuroscientist Eric Kandel, who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine, showed in a sea slug that genes change in the learning process.  “If you have a long-term memory,” he explains, “you alter the expression of genes in the brain and you grow new synapses.” It is an exciting and optimistic time in the medical, psychiatric, neuroscience, and personality worlds.  Kandel’s elegant work and all that has followed imply that no matter how troublesome your personality, biologically your fate is never really sealed.  Through experience, learning, and psychotherapy, you can turn up long-uncovered cards and expand your hand at any age. A good example of this form of memory is what happens when you learn a second language—once you’ve studied and practiced enough to speak the second language, you’ve changed your brain. And we need both types of memory—short-term retention (e.g., to remember how to get to your child’s soccer practice this afternoon) and long-term memory (e.g., to “keep on file”in your head what you will need every time you teach your regular course on art history). The brain is an amazing machine that can do all of this and more.

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