I had a wonderful correspondance with the always-insightful Stefanie Zobus - she's graciously allowed me to share it with you. Here's Stefanie -
Most people don’t fix their problems, but some do. You are reading Hacker News a lot, so I bet you get to read a lot of people quitting bad jobs and starting start-ups. Some people change, but they have to want to change, and they have to find the right way. There’s something interesting I found about that in a book I’m reading right now – apparently the mind plays a huge, huge role.
The book is called “Train your mind, change your brain” by Sharon Begley. It’s about neuroplasticity (and Buddhism). It talks a lot about how, no matter how old the brain is, it can still create new brain cells, thus it’s still changeable. It may be harder, but it certainly is possible. Then, it talks about, for example, how behavior, experiences and even thoughts can change the brain’s structure – the physical structure – and how all that is connected to how people are, behave, feel.
There are some interesting things like in cases of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder) – the feeling that something’s wrong and all that is apparently caused by some part of the brain firing too much. So, those OCD people were taught “mindfulness”, something like meditation, concentration on what they feel from a somewhat distanced viewpoint in the sense of just perceiving, letting it flow, not judging. At the same time they were also taught to view the obsessive-compulsive element they felt simply as some neurons firing bad. The result? They stopped feeling as if they were being controlled by the disorder, made good progress and all. Then the scientists put them into the brain scanner – and lo behold, the hyperactive firing of the brain area causing the disorder was muted in comparison to before. Interesting, interesting. (The scientists who did the experiments were neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of California-Los Angeles and his college Lewis Baxter.)
So what I want to say with that is… things like OCD are serious business, and if people can change that, adults can change that, I think they can also change other behavior. It’s a lot about seeing things right, and I suppose most never get there. (With seeing I don’t just mean theoretically getting it – i suppose I mean something like your intek). They need to find the right method, the right way to go about it. Those OCD people had tried many therapies before – those didn’t help, there was no progress. But then.... then, they found it, and consequently there was change.
Anyway, the second awesome thing deriving from this is something better explained with another example. So, there are those people who have depressions, and those have a very high rate of recurring within 2 years and stuff. They have this association, that, e.g. if they don’t get a job, it automatically means they are completely useless and will never be successful and are totally worthless anyway and..... there is this spiral they go down, and it’s so ingrained in them (you could put other kinds of behavior here, and habits, I think)... so what did the scientists do? They gave them the psychotherapeutic training that was a lot about meditating and of viewing the terrible moods and thoughts as some passing state (of the brain I suppose), some specific firing of neurons, transferring meaning, making it not necessarily true in their eyes. So after training that stuff (which was basically cognitive-behavior therapy), the activity in the frontal cortex was muted, which is responsible for logical reasoning, and also connected to the kind of pessimistic spiral the depressed go down when getting into depression. 66 percent of the patients were relapse free – while just 34 percent of the drug takers didn’t relapse. (It were Psychologist Zindel Segal, John Teasdale and Mark Williams did a lot of that research e.g. the one about the relapses, though neuroscientist Helen Mayberg also did a study about the effects of drugs, placebo, and cognitive-behavior therapy.)
So what does this mean? Through meditation, mind training, developing the right attitude one can change structures in the brain that determine the way we usually react to things – emotional stuff, too. I think there is huge, huge room for change. It’s not easy, and behavior that isn’t triggered by some area of the brain firing more than usual might be a little different, but it still correlates to structures in the brain. And those can be changed. Also in adult brains.
I think this stuff is amazing, and reveals a lot of potential for change. But yes, the right mindset, thoughts, training is required – and that’s hard to find. And you have to want it. Really, really want it bad, because it’s hard, and a lot of effort, and immediate gratification usually seems nicer than the delayed kind. I supposed most people who don’t change either don’t really want to, or don’t know a good way to (the meditation etc.), or both. (The meditating stuff was taught them by professionals, though, I think the whole idea originated from psychologists with a background in Buddhism. So, yeah, help is needed, people are needed.... I’m not sure if reading a book can really do the same. Help, yes, and in few individuals maybe, but in most... no.
Changing bad habits is a pain, but not changing them also is – because there’s something wrong. And I, at least, don’t like feeling that wrongness. I suppose lows are a part of the game, so finding ways back that work for oneself is crucial. I guess if there were no lows, one would eventually forget how great the good state is. I wonder if one should learn to appreciate the lows in that way – maybe that’d help, but should be no excuse to stay in it.
You can find Stefanie at http://stefaniezobus.wordpress.com/
This stuff is amazing. I completely agree. If you haven't read Norman Doidge's book - The Brain That Changes Itself - you should. It's full of great scientific stories on brain change going back decades. Research has shown that we can even increase IQ! And yet many scientists still try to claim that our brains don't change and that once something is set in the brain it can't be fixed. Humbug!