Your Brain Believes Everything That You Say

In recent years, we have become more aware of the neuroplasticity of our brains and how our thoughts and feelings are affected by not only what we are taught, but also, by everything we are exposed to during a day.  In other words, learning is occurring all the time.  The brain never shuts off.  Whatever we are exposing it to, it is processing.  Much of what we are processing we are not even aware of.  Think of it like a movie camera.  It is constantly taking pictures of what it sees, and recording what it hears, and all of that information is not only stored, but also organized, helping to create our thoughts and beliefs.  This information creates networks or “roads,” which are then available to communicate this data.  This film that your brain is recording is the unconscious lesson that we constantly receive.  How aware are you of exactly what kind of film you are creating every day?  For instance, what did your brain learn today?  I was just wondering………………….

Of course, we all know that we are educated in our schools and we are also taught lessons by our families.  Our culture is also a major influence of our beliefs and values.  We learn this not from books and not necessarily through instruction, but by viewing what our neighbors do, how they behave, how they dress, and how they think about things in general.  If we are never really exposed to another culture, then we will most likely remain unchanged.  However, the more we expose ourselves to, the more this information is synthesized in our brains and we become fuller than we were and different from the people with whom we grew up.

We also learn from the media we watch and listen to and our opinions get formed this way.  Our brains create a neural pathway for these thoughts and beliefs. The stronger the belief, the more deeply entrenched is the neural pathway.  Divergent thoughts become difficult to hold onto because the neural network is heavily influenced by what information goes into it.  It becomes slanted by the information to which we expose ourselves. This is why it is so difficult for us to see things from another viewpoint.  It is also the reason that once we have formed an opinion of another person, it is very difficult for us to view them in a different way when contradictory information is received.

Fears are developed when we tell ourselves over and over again that we are afraid of something.  Every time we are faced with the feared object, we reinforce it with our thought system.  This eventually creates a really intensely rutted “road,” one which we are unable to escape.  The good news is that fears can be overcome with self- talk.   I did this experiment on myself years ago to overcome my fear of flying.  Filled with fear, I booked a flight four months in advance.  Then, every time I drove somewhere, I talked to myself about how I loved flying, how everyone else likes it, that if all these other people can do it, I can do it and so on. I talked about looking out the window, enjoying the take-off and landing and every aspect of the trip I could imagine.   Also, I made a point of doing this orally in order to overcome any lingering fearful thoughts that might try to creep into my head.  When you are speaking, you whole brain has to focus on the words you are saying.  The morning of my flight I remember feeling somewhat zombie-like.  There was no fear.  I just got on to the plane and enjoyed the trip.  My fear of flying for 29 years was overcome through self-talk!  Through my own self talk effort, my brain listened and created a new neural pathway that loved, instead of feared flying!

Because your brain is listening and recording all of the time, it is really important to try to become more consciously aware of those “drifting” thoughts.  Try to do a periodic check-in to determine what’s really going into your brain.  What are you thinking about?  Is it a healthy thought?  Is it productive for you?  Are you terrorizing yourself?  Are you making yourself depressed or anxious by obsessing over something in the past or in the future?  Learn to change the movie channel if your thoughts are unhelpful.  Avoid negative thinking so that your brain will not create neural pathways that will be difficult to overcome.

Instead, practice affirmations and positive self talk.  It will never harm you to think positively, but it could harm you if you continue to let negative thinking persist.  Stress caused by negative and worrisome thoughts is the progenitor of illness.  That’s right!  Thinking bad thoughts can actually make you ill!  Your self talk may also be a determining factor of your success.  Remember, your computer brain is actually uploading your self-talk data and will create your belief system about yourself.  If you are already lacking confidence, then use verbal affirmations to begin to overcome it by creating a new neural pathway for success.  If you want to better understand your moods, then just listen to your self-talk.  Make sure that your brain is being fed information that is nourishing for your mind and soul.  Are you willing to make the effort to improve your thinking?  I was just wondering…………………………………




When Opportunity Knocks

Recently a new friend I met at my yoga class invited me to attend a tango dance class with her and her husband.  I thanked her but felt I would decline.  While I love to dance, I didn’t really feel that tango would be my thing.  Also, I did not have a partner to accompany me and I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Besides, it was cold out, and it would be dark and even colder that evening when the class was scheduled.  I put it out of my mind and went about my business for the day.  As the hour for the class approached, I thought more about reconsidering.  After all, I’d swung across the Costa Rican jungle on a zip line; I swam with sharks, giant turtles, and stingrays in Bora Bora; and I braved the mosquito and snake infested Amazon.  What could be so challenging about a little tango? When opportunity knocks, I usually open the door.  What do you do?  Do you fear what is on the other side?  I was just wondering………………

The instructors were the real deal, all the way from Argentina! We spent about the first 20 minutes just listening to their explanation of the dance.  As I scoped out the room, I was surprised to see there were as many men in attendance as women and there seemed to be very few people paired up like my friends.  This was comforting, as I was not the only solo in the group.  Following the warm-up talk, we were told to find a partner and then we were instructed how to position our feet.  It seemed I was back in ballet class, except it wasn’t first, second, third, or fourth position, but duck feet position!  Yes, heels together and toes pointing out and away from one another, creating a V.  In this position, we had to practice “waddling” backwards.  At least that is what it felt like!  Waddling! Without falling, that is!  Seriously! After a little practice at this, we were told to get into hold with our partners, hands on shoulders of one another, and then together to move with our duck feet!  For the women, this meant being pushed backwards while the male “lead” had the more convenient forward duck walk position.  I can assure you I never envisioned tango as a duck walk! So, we did a bit of practice while switching partners several times.  Each partner was very polite, introduced himself, and appeared equally unsure of himself.  Then a man with icy blue eyes approached me, grabbed my shoulders, quickly took command and began rapidly and assuredly pushing me backwards.  I noticed he had an accent and I was going to ask where he was from, but he was all business.  No smile, no friendly handshake, no name! I began to sweat (something I almost NEVER do), as I stumbled backward, trying desperately to keep apace!  Then his mouth opened as he commanded me to stop wiggling my butt!  Next, he ordered me to stand very straight, like I was tied to a post!  Now with duck feet, I was being pushed backwards rapidly while pretending I was tied to a tree! OMG!  This was much more frightening than the zip line! And this guy was definitely not someone I wanted to meet in a back alley!  While he was quite good looking, those icy eyes and cold demeanor just had a way of turning me into jelly, and I don’t mean the lustful kind, but jelly like when you feel too helpless to save yourself!

When this practice period thankfully ended, I rushed back to my friend for comfort and to share with her my unsettling experience.  As I described the guy, her eyes widened and she gasped, “Oh, you mean the Russian!?”  Well that explained it!  He must still be mentally living in the “cold war” or else he just had to be a Russian spy!  My friend went on to explain that he has actually been an instructor as well.  He is definitely not one I would voluntarily sign up for!

So, back to the question at hand. As I previously stated, I generally respond when opportunities present themselves to me.  You are probably giving yourself ammunition not to answer that knock by assuming that I regret having opened this door, that I never should have gone, that it was a wasted, uncomfortable experience.  Wrong!  I welcome it all.  How do you ever learn if you don’t experience?  In fact, the very best education in life is experiential.  When you actually participate in something, you retain a fuller learning experience and you also tend not to forget it.  You also learn what you like and what you don’t like.  For instance, I like to dance, but tango is probably not my forte, but I would never really know that if I hadn’t tried it. I suspect that my tendency to wiggle may be more conducive to salsa. On the other hand, sometimes we reject things that we really don’t know enough about or understand, which, if given an opportunity to experience, may result in a different outcome.  Besides the experience itself that you may question, you will have the opportunity to meet new people, make new connections, and open the door for even more opportunities! Try things!  Experience life to the fullest! It is the only way you will really know what you like instead of imagining what you may or may not enjoy.  It is also the best way to make discoveries about yourself!

As for me, I not only learned first-hand about tango, I met a Russian with icy blue eyes, I met some other very pleasant people, and I learned I don’t really want to pursue more tango.  But best of all, I had an experience that is unforgettable, and now I have a funny story to tell!  I am glad I opened that door.  What about you?  What will you do the next time opportunity knocks?  Will you try something new or will you have a lot of excuses?  Will you overcome a fear?  Will you open that door?  I was just wondering…………….


Just like the argument over nature versus nurture, a similar discussion often occurs over the concept of change, that is, people can change versus people don’t change.  The subject of change is a popular one in our culture, especially the mystery of exactly what creates change.  You will probably remember David Bowie’s famous song, “Changes,” both about his personal struggle of acceptance but also about the larger issues of how change occurs.  In the lyrics to this song, Bowie repeats over and over, “Time may change me but I can’t trace time.” He appears to view himself as a helpless bystander to how he is changed by time.  He is adrift within changes that go on within and about him and seems to keep trying to find some kind of balance and acceptance through it all.  Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus asserts that “A man cannot step in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”  This supports Bowie’s sense of lack of control over the movement of life/time that creates changes of which we are not fully aware as they are occurring.  While I will concede that there is an aspect of change related to the passage of time over which we have little control, I am thinking about other factors that might create change.  Do we have control over any of this?  I was just wondering…………………

Sometimes we change out of necessity.  When we are subjected to a crisis, for instance, such as a job loss, we are forced to look at things differently.  A crisis will often shake us out of our routine, thus offering us a new way of seeing things.  It is a mild form of receiving electric shock treatment! Our homeostasis is temporarily altered and as we regroup, we are sometimes exposed to new ways of operating.  A romantic breakup or even worse, the death of a significant other will cause the same type of response.  We are temporarily derailed, and during that time we are often exposed to a significantly altered way of managing our daily routines.  This exposure to new elements can create permanent change.  The type of change provoked from some sort of tragedy, however, is not planned and has not been considered before the upsetting event.  So, it is more of a shakeup, like throwing the IChing, and however it settles is how you will learn to create a new balance.

Another stimulus for change is an epiphany.  This is also unplanned and unexpected.  It seems to come about when, for reasons we don’t fully understand, you suddenly see or experience something that has been usual and ordinary in a completely new way.  There is usually a triggering event, again often something very ordinary, but you may suddenly have an “Aha” experience.  Some prior experiences all on their own have suddenly coalesced to create a new and important meaning.  An epiphany may also occur from something emotional or something extraordinarily beautiful.  It is like a little seizure of sudden understanding where before there was none. It is a reconfiguring jolt to the brain which allows us to see something not before understood.

The argument about change seems mostly to arise when we want to change in some way that is ostensibly under our control but just doesn’t occur.  We may want to lose weight or overcome a fear but do nothing to change our behavior or thinking that would alter these wishes.  We may be unhappy in a relationship but continue to behave the same way within it.  We may wish to be kinder or more spiritual but do nothing to make that happen.  We are experts at wishing, but we are not so good at making our wishes come true.

Einstein suggests that “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself,” and he further suggests that “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” C. JoyBell C. avers, “The only way we can change is if we learn.  The only way we can learn is if we are exposed.  And the only way we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open.  Do it.  Throw yourself.” She further encourages, “We can’t be afraid of change.  You may feel very secure in the pond that you’re in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea.  Holding on to something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don’t have something better.”  Nietzsche suggests that “The snake which cannot cast its skin must die.  As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.” Roy T. Bennett says, “It is only after you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone that you begin to change, grow, and transform.” According to Libba Bray, “And that is how change happens.  One gesture.  One person.  One moment at a time.”

What actually makes the changes that you want to make?  WORK! You have to do the work.  And what is the work?  Just as the experts have suggested, venture out, expose yourself to new things, immerse yourself with people, books, all educational materials that represent successfully what you want to become.  Follow the behaviors of those whom have succeeded before you, practice, find a mentor, and ACT!  Do your homework and then put it into action! As a psychologist I have seen people do their work, come back, and change, and I have seen those who never take the suggestions offered, keep complaining, and continue to wait for the magic wand.  The magic wand is only for fairy tales. If you really want to change, then unless you experience a tragedy, crisis, or epiphany, you have to make the effort.  Are you willing to do that? Or as in Bowie’s song ”Changes,” are you willing to allow time to shape you while you remain adrift and helpless to its subtle influences?  I was just wondering………………

A Life Well Lived

My husband died.  Suddenly.  As I wrote his obituary, I was flooded with memories of the incredible journey that we shared.  But I was even more affected by the messages and condolence calls that I received from people who expressed their gratitude for the help that my husband provided for them.  His service to others was more widespread than I had realized.  It occurred to me that not only had he fulfilled his bucket list, but that he had experienced a life well lived.  The whole exercise of reviewing his life led me to the concept of my own life inventory, and then, the thought that a periodic life inventory of ourselves might be a really good idea.  As I considered this, I pondered what exactly makes a life well lived.  I was just wondering………………………………

If you were writing your own obituary, what would you want to say?  After notating a person’s birthdate, most obituaries discuss the individual’s achievements.  Have you obtained the education you want?  Don’t make excuses.  There are so many ways to manage the cost of college today.  I did it as a single parent with a full time job.  If I could do it, so can you.  Do you have satisfying work?  Are you in the field of work that you always hoped for, or do you need to re-evaluate to get where you want to be?  If it seems impossible, re-evaluate now, create a plan, and start working toward your goal.  Don’t let life actually pass you by before you have achieved your dreams.

What would you say about your relationships?  Do you have good friends and supports?  If not, start engaging in activities in order to correct this.  Are you satisfied with your family?  If family relationships pose problems, then see a therapist, read some helpful books, try to understand from a different point of view, or practice tolerance.  If the problem is in a marital or couple relationship, then please remember that the grass is not usually greener, and understand that it takes loyalty and commitment to make a long- term relationship work.  If you want a long -term relationship, you will have to face this fact.  Take off the rose-colored glasses, support one another, and scrub in!  You are a team and if you remember that you are on the same side, you can make it work!  If you know you are not in the relationship that is right for you, then stop wasting your time.  If you don’t know, then see a therapist.  Get your life right!

What about your health, physical, emotional, and daily activities?  Are you engaging in activities that are enhancing to your life?  Are you making sure to get some kind of exercise?  Do you take care to eat well?  Do you have a routine that ensures that your body is being nourished, both physically and emotionally? Have you incorporated mental stimulation as part of your self-care?  If you are thinking, “I always wanted to ski,” then do it.  Whatever is an unrealized dream, make it a reality.  Make sure it is on your obituary list, not an incomplete bucket list!

What have you contributed to the common good?  What are your talents and how can you make the world a better place?  What is special and unique about you that you have to offer to others?  If you don’t know, then take some time to think about it.  Ask you friends what special qualities they see in you and then apply them to realize your gifts!

What about your Bucket List?  If you don’t have one, then create it. Travel.  See the world because it will help you to understand it better.  Start realizing your dreams before you no longer can.  Don’t postpone!  Have adventures!  Love!  Help others! Enjoy yourself!

But finally, it comes down to one very important issue.  Most of us go through life on robotic mode.  But when you reach the end of the road, you want to be pleased with the journey.  In order to be pleased with the journey and to achieve a life well lived, you must make an ongoing effort to improve yourself and to raise your self-awareness.  Remember the Jimmy Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life?  His guardian angel appeared and showed him the impact he had on his community.  We are each leaving a piece of our own personal legacy every day of our lives.  This is about your spiritual journey.  Whether it is through church, spiritual groups or readings, never stop trying to become better.  We have a lot of garbage input in our brains.  We need to work on awareness of our automatic behaviors, if they have purpose, and if we want to change our destructive thought patterns and reactions.  My husband did this throughout his life.  He had his demons, and while he did not overcome all of them, he made a very concerted effort to become a better person.  And he did.  He made a very positive difference in the lives of many people.  I am proud of him.  I hope I will feel the same about myself at the end of my journey.  How about you?  Are you satisfied with your obituary inventory?  I was just wondering………………..