The Examined Life: Change Your Brain Change Your Life

This is an Academic Research Paper on neuroplasticity and the art of mental training.  It is my hope that this paper can help people understand why making permanent changes in their lives is so difficult.  However,  through mental training making permanent changes is possible.  This paper is a long read and probably not something that will be done in one sitting.  I suggest printing this paper and reading it at your leisure.  Please feel free to leave feedback and let me know if you found this information useful.  This information has changed my life, I hope it can do the same for you.   Terry A. Elkins (whyguy)

The Examined Life:  Change your brain Change your life

Socrates believed that “the unexamined life was not worth living.”  It disturbed him that people were too busy “living” to take the time “to wonder why they were living…  [or even] who was doing the living.”  He believed that “if we are to become human in the fullest sense, achieving our distinctive potential and genuine happiness then we must live an examined life” (Chaffee 61).  His challenge to people was to have them reflect on their lives and have them “examine who they are, and who they want to become” (Chaffee 50).  But what if we examine our lives and don’t like what we find; can we change it?  Some would say no, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”; but neuroscience would argue that this clichéd statement was mistaken.  In fact, as Dr. Gary Marcus explains in his book The Birth of the Mind, nature bestows upon us at birth a complex brain—one that is flexible, mutable, and wired for learning.  This flexibility is known as neuroplasticity (12).  The research will show that this mutability or ability to change stays with us our entire lives, and this is why we humans can learn new tricks well into old age.

However, there are opposing views in science, known as biological and environmental determinism, that believe people are slaves to their brains wiring and incapable of change.

“According to biological determinism, everything from music tastes to [a] predisposition to commit crimes like murder is laid out in a person’s genetic makeup.  Customs, education, expectations, and all other variables are not considered.  Social determinism is the opposite of biological or genetic determinism; this concept asserts that social and environmental factors determine a person’s characteristics and traits” (Nature vs. Nurture 1).

If these views were right, it would indeed be hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

The purpose of this paper is to show how people can override genetic and environmental determinism through mental training.  Helping them break free from the patterns of negative behaviors, bad habits, and mental dysfunctions that keep them from living their lives to the fullest.  So that they may lead the lives Socrates imagined—becoming who they wish to be instead of who they are programmed to be.

First, the research will show that who we are (the idea of self), can be found in the brain.  Second, it will explain how our genes and environment wire our brains by looking at the nature vs. nurture debate.  In addition, it will show how this wiring robs us of our freewill thorough genetic and environmental determinism.  Third, it will show how the brain controls every aspect of our lives, driving our thoughts, desires, and behaviors.  Fourth, it will show that our brains wiring is not set in stone and how that wiring can be changed through the process of neuroplasticity.  Finally, this paper will introduce the reader to some of the methods people use to change their lives, such as medication, meditation, and cognitive therapy, as well as new technologies, such as, gene therapy.

A thorough knowledge of how the brain works is not necessary to make permanent life changes in a person’s life.  But, an understanding of the how the brain is wired and programmed can help.  Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Buddhist Monk and scientist, says in his book The Joy of Living that understanding the brain’s functioning is of vital importance to understanding how to make changes in our lives.  He says:

“Think of it this way:  If you were driving in the dark, wouldn’t you feel better having a map of the terrain, instead of just a rough idea where you were going?  Without a map, and without any signs to guide you, you could get lost….Sure, you might eventually end up where you want to go, but the journey would be a lot easier if you knew where you were going” (58).

Just as a basic understanding of how the body works can help a person lose weight, a basic understanding of how the brain is wired can help a person make permanent changes in their life.

Buddha said, “…our life is the creation of our mind” (qtd.  in Haidt 24).  In purely biological terms, the mind and brain are one; it is where our memories are stored, our thoughts originate, and all of our bodily functions are controlled.

Hippocrates said it more eloquently:

Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jest, as well as our sorrows, pains, grief’s and tears.  Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear, and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good [and] the pleasant from the unpleasant.  It…makes us mad or delirious, inspires us with fear, brings sleeplessness and aimless anxieties….In these ways I hold that the brain is the most powerful organ in the human body (qtd. in Tancredi 2).

This organ, known as the brain, controls every aspect of a person’s life from the physical to the mental; it controls the automatic processes, as well as every thought, emotion, and behavior.  Many of the functions the brain carriers out are inherited through the genes or learned through environmental experiences.  This is commonly referred to as nature and nurture.

Scientist would argue that genes and environment  play a crucial role in influencing who a person becomes; from beliefs, likes, dislikes, personality, behavior, etc.  But exactly how much influence genes and environment have on shaping a person’s life is a battle that has been going on for centuries and one that still has no clear-cut winner.  The most that can be said for absolute certainty is that both play a crucial role in human development (VanBuren 1).

In a recent survey that asked, “What has had the greatest influence in shaping who you are as a person-nature or nurture?”  The results were mixed: 38% responded both, 38% said nurture, and 24% said neither and 0% believe nature alone influences their lives in some way.  The results suggest that the general population has a mixed view on the nature vs. nurture debate.

Nature refers to a person’s biology and genetic makeup (genes).  These genes are the building blocks of life; they are the small bits of DNA passed on in equal shares by parents, and they have a crucial role in brain development.  As Dr. Marcus says, “The origin of the brain is in the genes” (2).  He goes on to say that, these genes are the basis for our physical and behavioral development.

It would be hard to argue against the fact that genes shape physical attributes, such as eye color, hair color, skin color, etc.  But when the claim is made that behavior and personality is strongly influenced by genes alone, there is much less acceptance of this idea.  As the aforementioned survey suggest, 0% of people believe that genes alone influence behavior and personality.  But, “if genes can predispose us to cancer or diabetes, it stands to reason that they might significantly shape our minds…contribute to our personalities, our temperaments, and the qualities that make each individual unique” (Marcus 2-3).  Just as animals can be bred to pass on specific behavior traits and temperaments, (like dogs bred to be hunters or be docile), humans can also pass on behavior traits to their offspring (Marcus 3).

However, the results of the survey were misleading, while 0% said they believe genes alone did not influence their lives, when asked specifically if they thought genes could influence behavior and personality, 100% of the respondents said they thought they could.  In a recent interview, Dan Silva., a Chicago police officer, he said he had “no doubt” that genes influence behavior and personality.  He explained:

I raised four sons, none of which are biologically mine, and one of which is from a different father than his three younger siblings.  I raised the three younger ones for most of their lives, the oldest of the three being seven and the youngest being four.  At the time of my marriage, I had a chance to shape and influence many things in their lives, but it was very apparent to their mom and I that some of their behaviors were mirroring their biological father even though they had hardly any contact with him most of their lives.  In fact, the youngest has no memory of his biological father; however, he displays characteristics that are almost a mirror of his dad.

Others shared Silva’s belief that genes can influence behavior and personality.  Sara Elkins, a 23-year-old college student, said that even though she had not spent much time with her biological father growing up, she believes her “passion for art” came from him; she also believes that her ability to become “quickly irritable” at times was inherited from her mother.  Nanci Prichard said, “I think that when you are born you are genetically predisposed to a lot of things, you may have a sunny outlook on life, or not, and this predisposition will affect how you interact in the world and your environment.”

To support the claim that genes can influence behavior and personality, scientists have looked at those whose genes are identical-twins.  According to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, “[o]n just about every trait that has been studied, [including]  intelligence, extroversion, fearfulness, religiosity, political leaning…or [a] dislike of spicy foods,  identical twins are more similar than fraternal twins, and they are usually as similar if they were separated at birth.”  Haidt explains the reason for this is that identical twins share the same genes, which he equates to being like recipes.  Since twins share the same “recipes,” they end up having similar brains, thus, similar behaviors (32).  One such case of identical twins with similar behaviors is the case of Daphne and Barbara:

Raised outside London, they both left school at the age of fourteen , went to work in local     government, met their future husbands at the age of sixteen at local town hall dances, suffered miscarriages at the same time, and then each gave birth to two boys and a girl.  They feared many of the same things (blood and heights) and exhibited unusual habits (each drank her coffee cold; each developed the habit of pushing up her nose with the palm of the hand, a gesture they both called “squidging”).  None of this may surprise you, until you learn that separate families had adopted Daphne and Barbara as infants; neither even knew of the other’s existence until they were reunited at the age of forty.  When they finally did meet, they were wearing almost identical clothing (Haidt 32).

The story of Daphne and Barbara clearly show that genes strongly influence behavior and personality.  In Barbara and Daphne’s case, their genetic programming strongly influenced their likes and dislikes, as well as their drive to seek out similar experiences.  It’s as if they were destined to behave the same way.

Genes are not the only influence on behavior.  Experience (nurture) also has a strong influence on the brains wiring.  Nurture is a combination of environment and experiences.  The earliest environment is the mother’s womb.  This is where a mother’s nutrition, use of drugs or alcohol, or exposure to high levels of stress can have negative effects on the development of the fetus, and lead to a myriad of mental disorders (Carlson 108).  It is in the womb where the early formation of the billions of neurons in the brain and the trillions of connections happen.  The way in which these neuronal connections come together can determine a person’s health and brain functions.  “Alter them, and you alter the mind” (Marcus 90).

After birth, early life experiences have a strong influence on brain wiring.  Joseph VanBuren points out in his article Nature VS.  Nurture: Working Together Instead of Fighting, if we receive loving stimulation by our parents and are provided an enriched environment, our neuronal connections become stronger.  If not, we run the risk of these connections becoming inactive.  He goes on to say that,  “[v]arious studies show that infants and children from impoverished environments score consistently different on tests of perception and emotional stability than those who have received regular amounts of stimulation and care” (2).  These finding show just how important positive environmental experiences are on brain development.

Other environmental influences that have a great influence on the brain’s development are peers, culture, and gender roles.  VanBuren says humans are “social animals” that find themselves in a variety of social interactions throughout their lives-family, school, work, etc.  “Research shows that children, adolescents, and sometimes adults are extremely sensitive and responsive to influence from their peers.”  Cultural influences that may affect ones values and personality  range from cultural norms and “expected beliefs” to the understood rules of society.  For example, in some cultures, children receive less attention than in other cultures, and in some cultures, it is acceptable for children to be put to work at an early age to help earn money for the family.  Both types of treatments can have profound effects on a person’s personality and behavior.  In addition, gender plays a significant role in shaping who a person becomes   “It is our culture and social interactions that give meaning to our realized gender identity.  The foundation of gender roles (the norms set for males and females) are often laid down for us as newborns…from toys to clothes to jobs to roles in the family-according to our culture, certain things are for males and others for females” (2-3).  With all of these environmental influences on behavior, it is easy for a child whose brain is not fully developed to adopt the traits, behaviors, and customs of those around them.

To further support the claim that environment plays a role in shaping personality and behavior I interviewed several people and asked what influence the environment had in shaping their lives.  Many of the people I spoke with had similar responses.  Some said that they learned about compassion and love from their parents.  Others said they picked up bad habits from a variety of sources, such as family, friends, and the media.  Some believed that their culture and family imposed their religious beliefs on them.  Hadeel K., a female Saudi Arabian college student, believes she learned a strong work ethic from her father.  Ann A. believes she learned not to take life so seriously from many people in her environment, which she said gives her the ability to laugh at “life’s circumstances” and lets her keep her “sense of humor during hard times.”  Sara Elkins believes she learned to be an “analytical thinker” from the father who adopted her, as well as school.

These findings suggest that environment has as much influence on personality and behavior as genes do.  However, it is important to note that neither genes nor environment work in isolation.  Genes can dictate how people interact in their environment, and environment can dictate which genes are turned on or switched off.  This turning on and off of genes is known as gene expression.  A gene can be said to be expressed when it is turned on and doing its job.  If you have blue eyes, the gene for blue eyes can be said to be expressed.  Gene expression doesn’t stop in the womb; it goes on throughout our lives.  The following is an example of how gene expression works:

Even a brief exposure to light of a newborn kitten, rat, or monkey, can launch a cascade of gene expression.  The light activates photoreceptors-which send signals-which trigger a pathway-which leads to the expression of neural growth factors and a set of genes known as ‘immediate early genes’ or ‘early response genes; each of which, in turn, triggers the expression of many more genes….  [For example], putting a rat in an enriched environment for just three hours leads to increased expression of at least sixty different genes (Marcus 98-99).

This cascading effect of genes is a complex process that cannot be predicted with any amount of accuracy (Marcus 99).  This may explain why two people raised in similar environments can turn out so different.  One may turn out to be a saint, and the other a sinner, depending on which genes were expressed and how that expression influenced other genes in the cascade.  In the case of children who are exposed to reading at an early age, the cascading effect of other genes may profoundly influence a love for language and learning.  This, in turn, may have profound implications throughout their lives on the choices they make and the success they have in their lives.

The intertwining effects of experience, environment, and genes all influence behavior, personality, and make people who they are.  In the case of the twins Barbara and Daphne, it is clear that their genes determined much of who they are.  As for environment, it is equally clear that likes and dislikes, beliefs and values, and many of the choices people make are influenced by their surroundings, family members, peers, friends, etc.

With all of the genetic and environmental influences determining who we are, it may be that we don’t have as much control over our lives as we think we do.  In the book, Hardwired Behavior, Laurence Tancredi, a clinical professor of Psychiatry at New York University of Medicine, explains that too much emphasis is placed on free will.  He states “neuroscience is forcing us to rethink the extent of our personal control over our choices.”  He claims that we are “victims of our own brain biology” (75).  He continues to explain that we are “not quite as free as we would wish-and that biological forces produced by genes and by the environment may be more powerful than anyone ever believed possible in influencing an individual’s decisions” (69, 75).  In essence, we are not in control of our own choices, thoughts, feelings, actions, and lives.  There is evidence to support this claim.  For instance, take the case of a forty-year-old Chicago schoolteacher who was admitted to the hospital for a severe headache.  Upon examination, he was found to have a massive tumor putting pressure on the area of the brain that inhibits behavior-the frontal cortex.  This caused dramatic changes in his personality; he became a regular visitor of prostitutes, engaged in child pornography, and had constant urges to rape.  Because of this, his wife left him, and he was eventually arrested for child molestation.  After the tumor was removed his behavior went back to normal, but when the tumor grew back his deviant sexual behavior returned.  Again, the tumor was removed and he returned to normal (Haidt 14).

This is an extreme example of how brain wiring robbed a person of his control.  But there is other evidence of faulty brain functioning robbing people of control.  For instance, take the neurological based conditions known as motor release phenomenon, all of which rob a person of their self-control.  One such phenomenon is known as utilization behavior, which causes a person to uncontrollably use whichever object is placed in front of them.  For example, if a hat is placed in front of a person with this condition, they feel they must put it on; or if a glass of water is placed in front of them, they feel they must drink it.  Another motor release phenomenon is known as imitation behavior; a person with this condition constantly and uncontrollably imitates the behaviors of others, seemingly to mock those around him, but the behavior is beyond their control.  Another condition, known as anarchic hand syndrome, keeps people from controlling one of their own hands.  These people will reach for a door to open it and the other hand will close it, or when they go to eat with the right hand the left hand stops them.  In extreme cases, the uncontrolled hand can become violent and attack the person with this syndrome, or even others.  All of these syndromes have one thing in common:  the behaviors are beyond the control or intention of the person who is afflicted (Tancred 71).

Although these are extreme cases of a loss of freewill due to faulty brain wiring, they are only extreme because they are beyond normal brain functioning and detectable by modern science.  But not all loss of control or lack of ability to choose actions and behaviors is diagnosable by the medical community, and not every bad choice made sends a person to the doctor to get a brain scan done.  However, just because a person is not diagnosed with a brain abnormality, this doesn’t mean that he or she is in control of their behavior and lives, especially considering how much influence genes and environments play in shaping the complex organ of the brain.

Those who believe in environmental and genetic determinism claim that both biology and environment determine a person’s behavior, and that free will is an illusion.  They believe that the programming of the brain through genes and environmental influences determines a person’s destiny (Nature or Nurture 1).  But, if programming is wired in the brain by outside forces, such as nature and nurture, then there may be a way for people to regain free will by learning to rewire their own brains-thus, breaking free from the bonds of genetic and environmental determinism.

In a recent survey, thirteen out of thirteen people said they believe that it was possible to override the programming of genes and environment.  The ability to override a person’s programming is known as neuroplasticity.  Harvard neurologist, Pascual-Leone described neuroplasticity as:

Evolution’s way of letting the brain break the bonds of its own genome, escaping the destiny genes might impose on the brain.  Nature [has] equipped the human brain [with adaptation], endowing it with the flexibility to adapt to the environment it encounters, the experiences it has, the damage it suffers, the demands its owner makes of it.  The brain is neither immutable nor static but is instead continuously remodeled by the lives we lead (qtd. in Indo 1).

According to Sharon Begley, author of Train your Mind Change your Brain, the process

of neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is malleable, ever changing, and capable of rewiring itself throughout life (24).  Until the last part of the 20th century, it was believed that the brain was not capable of undergoing any dramatic brain changes (30).  But in recent years, neuroscience has discovered that the human brain is capable of growing new neurons (a process known as neurogenesis), turning on and off genes (a process known as gene expression), and is capable of strengthening or pruning neurons.  In addition, it has the power to reorganize and repair itself when damaged (8).  Begley says that the ramifications of neuroplasticity to change lives is immense.  She goes on to say that people can overcome mental disease, break bad habits, repair damaged areas of the brain due to stroke or other injury, and it can even help those with learning disabilities (9).

Two key processes in neuroplasticity are synaptic strengthening and synaptic pruning.  Synaptic strengthening occurs “[a]s neurons connect and form a bond…the more often the same neurons connect the stronger that bond becomes.  This bonding is the biological basis for… what we call mental habits” (Rinpoche 34).  These mental habits are our memories, “from something your mother said five minutes ago to evolutionary information received five million years ago,” through our genes (Carlson 7).  These memories provide a sense of self, control thought processes, and drive emotions-they are a person’s mental habits.  Synaptic Pruning takes place when a person no longer engages in mental habits.  When this happens, the memories and habits that drive behavior wither away and die (Rinpoche 35).  This means that if we can change our synapses, we can change the self.

While most changes that happen in the brain are due to experiences, it has been discovered that many changes can take place by “pure mental activity,” suggesting that how people think about certain things can restructure, reorganize, and reshape the brain.  But this process is not done in a vacuum; people must focus their attention to gain the full benefits of neuroplasticity (Begley 9).  All of these findings suggest that changing any aspect of behavior or the brains wiring is as simple as thinking it so.

However, thinking your way into changing behavior is not always so simple.  This is because behavior and thinking are often at odds.  The Roman poet Ovid writes of this in Metamorphoses, stating, “I am dragged along by a strange new force.  Desire and reason are pulling in different directions.  I see the right way and approve of it, but follow the wrong” (qtd. in Haidt 4).  Simply put, actions do not always follow intent.  This is why, to get the full benefits of neuroplasticity, people must learn to train their brains using their mental capacity to override their emotions.

Even the Buddha knew the value of training on the mind.  He taught his student “how to direct their minds in ways that would create the kinds of subtle changes in their physiology that would allow them to override their biological and environmental conditioning” (Rinpoche 233).  This isn’t easy; it takes hard work.  The Dali Lama says in his book The Art of Happiness, written with Howard Cutler, “there are a lot of negative mental traits, [and] you need to counteract each one of these.  [This] isn’t easy; it requires repeated application of various techniques (42).

There are many techniques available to help people change their lives, but “no teacher, self help guru, book, or therapist can change who you are; they can guide you, but you have to rewire your own brain” (Carlson 22).  Many of the people I spoke with told me they have tried to override their programming at some time in their lives or were interested in breaking free from some type of negative behavior, bad habit ( both mental and behavioral),  or mental dysfunction that keep them from living their lives to the fullest.  The most common changes people were looking to make included:  losing weight, stop smoking, learning to stand up for oneself, overcoming insecurity, overcoming shyness, overcoming procrastination, to stop being self-critical, to stop being judgmental,  learning a new skill or talent, etc.

When asked, “What is harder to change a trait that was inherited, or one that was learned?”  Half of the respondents said learned, and the other half said inherited.  Prichard stated, “It is always easier to change something that is learned over something that has a genetic predisposition.”  Mike Elkins agrees; he believes that it is not possible to “physically” change your own genes, but he believes you can change learned behavior, especially that which is learned from your upbringing.  He said, “At some point in your life you have to be your own man.”  Sara Elkins believes that they are both equally hard to change, “but not impossible.”  Silva said, “It’s definitely harder to change behavior that is wired into you; many of our behaviors are learned, and as quickly as we learn them we can just as quickly change them if we want to.  But the ones that come from within, the ones that we seem to be hardwired with are definitely more difficult to change.”  Hadeel K, says, “It’s more a question of how long you’ve been carrying out a certain behavior-the longer the harder-inherited or learned.”  In an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Samelson, a psychologist, he stated that making any change is dependent on the “nature of the behavior one wishes to change and the more deeply ingrained a behavior is, the harder it is to change.”

Many of the people I spoke with believe there are many methods people can use to help themselves make changes in their life.  Some of the most common methods included medication, meditation, self-help books, hypnosis, therapy, and prayer.  Lori Hawley said that she “leans on God” for all of her needs.  When asked, “What method works best?  Dr. Samelson said, “The method that works best is the one that is needed.”  Asked to clarify, he stated that the nature of the condition determines the method he uses to treat his patients.  He went on to say he wouldn’t treat a person with a severe chemical imbalance with “talk therapy,” and he wouldn’t suggest a person read a self-help book if that person needed extensive counseling to overcome a “severe emotional problem.”  He reiterated, “The method used depends on the nature of the problem.”  However, he did concede there are many methods people can use to make changes in their lives, and he believes that many methods have merit, but he “warns” against people trying to overcome some of life’s more difficult challenges on their own.  He suggests that if a person needs help they should seek it out from a qualified professional.

Three of the most recognized techniques used by many of the people spoken with and endorsed by professionals, medication, cognitive therapy, and meditation, are worth taking a closer look at.

Medication is used to restore chemical imbalances in the brain.  If the chemicals in the brain get out of balance this can lead to mental instability and make training the brain through thinking  more difficult.  One popular medication to help restore chemical balance is Prozac.  Prozac is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).  It is most commonly used to treat depression by helping the brain maintain a higher level of serotonin in the brain (Haidt 40).

In his book, Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer explains the benefits of using Prozac on his patients.  He says that he has seen peoples’ lives change drastically.  He has seen patients overcome depression, anxiety, and feel more joy in their lives.  Even patients with no known history of mental illness saw improvement when taking Prozac.  These people may have had some personality quirks or odd behaviors, but for the most part they were normal individuals who saw lifelong habits changed in as little as five weeks after starting on Prozac (qtd. in Haidt 44).

Cognitive therapy is another effective method in helping people make changes in their lives.  I asked Dr. Samelson how cognitive therapy works and why.  He said that cognitive therapy works because it helps people overcome what he says is “distortions in thinking.”  He said that many people hold views about the world and themselves that are not within the realm of a “healthy belief system.”  This often causes pain in a person’s life, and when these views become “pervasive,” they can cause undue emotional distress.  To overcome this distorted thinking he teaches his patients how to challenge their belief systems.  For example, he says a patient may come to him believing he is a failure; he has that person challenge that belief by asking, “How often do you fail, and how often do you succeed?”  Usually, Dr. Samelson finds that a person is successful more often than they fail, and he points this fact out to his patient by saying “twenty-three out of twenty- four successes ain’t bad.”  When done right, the patient begins to see their “distorted thinking” in a new light; in time, they start to feel better and begin to challenge all of their negative thinking.  Dr. Samelson says this method works well, and that he likes it because it is easy to teach and his patients can use it their entire lives.  Haidt explains that by using cognitive therapy patients can begin to strengthen new synapses and build new mental habits.  Also, the less negative behaviors are engaged the more synaptic pruning occurs.  This is how cognitive therapy changes the brains programming.  When done right, the benefits of cognitive therapy can last a lifetime-because it has retrained the brain (44).

Another method for training the brain is through the practice of meditation.  Meditation works on the same concept as cognitive therapy; its goal is to change the automatic thought processes (Haidt 35). This is because many fears and anxieties are nothing more than “neuronal gossip,” which are bad “mental habits” that people often unconsciously engage in due to their programming, but through  meditation these bad mental habits can be unlearned (Rinpoche 47).  There are many meditative practices, but all have a common theme: silence, controlled breathing, and clear thought processes.  This lets you become familiar with your own mind, and as you become aware of your own thoughts, perceptions, and sensations, they will slowly begin to lose their power over you (Rinpoche 43).  As with cognitive therapy, meditative practices actually rewire the brain (Begley1).

Studies by scientists confirmed this fact when they studied experienced Buddhist monks while the monks engaged in meditation.  Scientists found that those experienced in meditation showed more activity in brain regions that control higher thinking and emotions.  In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes.  These changes were not only significantly higher in experienced meditates, but the changes to the brain were more enduring.  Studies also found that through training, meditation has a significant impact on beginning mediators as well (Begley 229-239).

In the future, rewiring the brain may be a lot simpler.  With advances in gene therapy, biomedicine, and neuroscience, it is only a matter of time before gene alteration and our ability to rewire the brain through science is a reality.  According to James Vlaho:

The prospect of drug-enabled super minds is not just a futurist’s fantasy.  In the past 20   years, scientists-aided by advances in computing, brain imaging, and genetic engineering-have made significant progress toward understanding the biochemical systems that regulate cognition and emotion.  This knowledge has raised the possibility of manipulating those systems more powerfully and precisely than ever before (1).

However, even though science may be ready to help people change their brains wiring with drugs and gene therapies scientist may have to wait for the prevailing views of the  people to catch up with science.  In a recent survey,  thirteen people were asked if they would resort to the use of gene therapy or other scientific breakthroughs aimed at manipulating behavior and the brain.  Not one person said they would resort to these types of techniques to help them make changes in their lives.

Whatever method people choose to help them make changes in their lives it is up to each individual to figure out what method works best for them.  But, it should be clear that training the brain starts with inner transformation and involves the discipline of gradually replacing negative conditioning with positive conditioning (Cutler and Lama 46).  Many of the techniques discussed can help in this conditioning process.

Finally, I asked people what advice they would give to people wanting to make changes in their lives.  The following are direct quotes from those I interviewed:

  1. Sara Elkins: I stumbled on this quote by Charles Darwin, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.’  Sometimes you can’t ignore that you are getting older or changing, you have to embrace it with open arms.  Self improve every chance you get.

2.      Dan Silva:  Don’t give up, and don’t make excuses as to why you can’t change.  A person does not stand a chance at change if they don’t believe change can occur.  However, more importantly, I believe that God is the only one that can help us make life long significant changes.  Only through Him can we truly overcome anything.

3.      Mike Elkins:  If it makes you feel better by trying to make a change do it, even if you do not get the results you had hoped for, at least you tried.

4.      Ann. A. :  Be patient, have faith, be positive, and don’t lose sight of the goal.

5.      Hadeel K. :  Begin with baby-steps, one step at a time, yes, you will have slips along the way, but that is normal.

In conclusion, after examining the evidence, my conclusion is there are many forces that go into making us who we are.  From our genes and environmental influences, to family, friends, peers, culture, etc.  These forces condition us over time, and program our brains in such a way that we mistakenly believe our choices to be free and independent.  In order to make free choices we must become aware of these influences and then decide what course of action we want to choose.  As long as we are unaware of these influences, they can limit our ability to make free, independent choices.  By becoming aware of these forces, we can escape the influence they have over us, leaving us to transcend these forces by choosing to take responsibility for our brains programming.  This is where critical thinking and mental training come in.  By using our thinking ability to understand ourselves and the forces that go into shaping who we are we can regain the ability to make genuinely free choices.  There are many techniques to help people do this, from medication, meditation, and cognitive therapy, but none is as important as the ability of people to think for themselves.  This is why Socrates challenge to people to examine their lives was so important and is still relevant today.  He wished for people to think for themselves, so that they may break free from the bonds of genetic and environmental determinism, relying less on automatic thinking and more on critical thinking.  By doing so we can take control of our lives and our brains-making them  into what we wish them to be, not what they are programmed to be.  When people lead the examined life they can take back control of their minds, learn new tricks well into old age, and as Socrates said, “become human in the fullest sense, achieving [their] distinctive potential and genuine happiness” ( Chaffee 61).

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