Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Daniel G. Amen, M.D. was published in 1998, but even today, twenty years later, it is completely relevant and insightful, especially when it comes to organizing your life. We’re in the middle of a week where I’m encouraging you to organize storage spaces like basements, attics, garages, and all those smaller storage spaces in your home. Rather than trying the latest one-size-fits-all, pop culture decluttering fad, take a look at what the science says about behavior, and learn how to make changes for good.
Although it sounds like just another self-help book, Dr. Amen distinguishes the book by backing up almost every page with his clinical experiences and photos of brain scans he’s performed throughout his career.
In his practice he uses SPECT scans, which both you and you might never have heard of. According to the Mayo Clinic’s description, “A SPECT scan is a type of nuclear imaging test, which means it uses a radioactive substance and a special camera to create 3-D pictures.” You probably know someone who has had a CAT scan or an MRI, but SPECT scans don’t usually come up on hospital drama TV shows. Brain research has steadily emerged over the last few decades, and much of the social and cultural changes that we’ve experienced have been driven by better understanding of how the brain works. We no longer think people are just lazy or stupid; we diagnose learning differences and make accommodations. We no longer debate nature versus nurture; we mostly agree that both play a part in human development. We no longer treat children as small adults; we study childhood development milestones. And perhaps most surprising, we no longer believe that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks; we celebrate the brain’s elasticity (or capacity to learn) until death.
My absolute favorite insight comes on page 57 of the printed book, found early in chapter 4.
Did you know that every thought you have sends electrical signals throughout your brain? Thoughts have actual physical properties. They are real! They have significant influence on every cell in your body…Teaching yourself to control and direct thoughts in a positive way is one of the most effective ways to feel better.
This isn’t some new-age mumbo-jumbo about mantras. This book explains what we’ve only just begun to understand in this last century…that your body impacts how your mind works, and your mind also impacts how your body works.
Neurologists and neuroscientists use the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that every time we have a thought, whether it’s a thought like, “I’m so angry that guy just cut me off in traffic,” or “I’ll just put this clutter here…for now,” those thoughts produce an electrical pathway in the brain. When those thoughts occur repeatedly, that physical pathway made up of neurons, synapses and brain chemicals gets stronger and stronger, and becomes a physical structure inside our brain. Your thoughts are literally paving new roadways in your brain with each repetition.
When my daughter practices her cello, the complex thoughts of, “Here’s where I place my fingers to play an A, C, and so on,” will eventually produce physical neural structures so that she won’t have to think about the individual notes, but she will eventually play more or less automatically. She’s developing and building strong and long neurons in the music-playing centers of her brain.
You can see what actual neurons look like at my favorite exhibit in person or online at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Your Brain exhibit.
The book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life is a road map for emotions that people experience through their lives, including anxiety, depression, obsessiveness, anger, and impulsiveness. We see all of these emotions when we help people organize. Dr. Amen methodically explains what brain areas are involved in certain behaviors and shows multiple brain scans, often in a before and after format. You don’t have to be a scientist to see the differences in the brain pictures in his book. It’s obvious that there is something wrong with his examples, just like a broken arm x-ray would be obvious even to a lay person.
Helpfully, Dr. Amen provides step-by-step actions that you can take to interrupt negative thought processes for most people without brain injury or pathology. But he also provides information about when and how to seek professional care in Chapter 17. We CAN develop our own thoughts and patterns, but when there is underlying pathology (sickness or injury), we should seek help.
An analogy is going to the gym versus seeing an orthopedist. A healthy person who is looking to improve their muscle tone can design their own program to take yoga classes and walk on a treadmill at the gym, and they could get stronger and faster over time. But if you have a broken leg, you don’t get better by just using the treadmill more!
Once you know that your thoughts are real, physical structures, and that you can either strengthen or interrupt them, you’ve got a whole new way to think about making changes for New Year’s Resolutions, or at any time of the year.
It’s simple, but maybe not easy, to change. Change is hard, but it is possible for most people without underlying pathology, and even for many with brain disabilities.
One last thought that isn’t the focus of the book, other research has shown that it’s much easier to break or build a habit by automating positive choices and by focusing on what you want than by focusing on what you don’t want. Fear and uncertainty are very powerful factors in our lives, but as the saying goes, love can conquer all.
Have you read Dr. Amen’s book, Change your Brain, Change Your Life? What did you think of it?