How to Rewire Your Brain For Success

What's the Big Idea?


Until the 1980s, the scientific consensus was that the nervous system was fixed and incapable of regeneration. Growth of neurons was considered most active during prenatal development. As we age, neurons atrophy, the thinking went. Now scientists believe new neurons are continually born throughout adulthood.

Several breakthrough studies suggest that we may have more control over how our brains function and develop throughout adulthood—our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions—than previously assumed.

Why does this matter? Because by learning how to control our mentality, we may be able to deliberately reshape our neural pathways and rewire our brains to make ourselves more successful and fulfilled. In other words, shape your brain and you can shape your life.

Practice and Thinking Rewire the Brain

In 2007, Harvard Medical School conducted a study with volunteers in a lab who were asked to learn and practice a five-finger piano exercise. A neuroscientist instructed half of the volunteers to play as fluidly as they could, trying to keep to the metronome's 60 beats per minute, two hours a day for five days. The other half were instructed to merely think about practicing the piano, holding their hands still while playing the music in their heads. At the end of the five days, both groups underwent a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation test, which enabled scientists to infer the function of neurons.  

The test results showed that in both groups, the stretch of motor cortex devoted to these finger movements took over surrounding areas. The finding was in line with a growing number of discoveries showing that greater use of a particular muscle causes the brain to devote more cortical growth to it. Practice rewires the brain. More startling, however, was that the same region of the brain had expanded in the volunteers who merely thought about playing in a disciplined way.

There are two big implications here: 1.) that mental training may have the power to change the physical structure of the brain, and 2.) that the brain doesn't distinguish between a real or imagined exercise.

The Downside of Neuroplasticity

In neuroscience, the previous prevailing belief had been that the adult human brain is essentially "hardwired," so that by the time we reach adulthood we are stuck with what we have. Now we understand that the adult brain retains impressive powers of "neuroplasticity"—the ability to change its structure and function in response to experiences real or imagined.

The downside of neuroplasticity is that negative experiences can have a deleterious effect on our brains. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neuroendocrinology at Stanford University, has shown that stress is associated with neural degeneration. His research found that long-term stressful life experiences cause elevated production of cortisol, which results in the shrinking of the hippocampus area of the brain. The hippocampus is one of the few regions of the brain known to be able to produce new neurons, a process called neurogenesis.

What's the Significance?

How to Apply These Concepts in Business

We can use these new findings about the brain to help us become better performers at work, more successful in our business dealings, and more fulfilled professionally. By consistently training our thoughts, like those imaginary piano players, we can expand the number of branches and synaptic connections in our hippocampus, potentially leading to an increased ability to retain new information and adapt to new situations. Here are a few practical ways to apply these concepts.

Control your environment.

Because our brain cannot distinguish between real and imagined practice, if we subject ourselves to 30 minutes of watching sensationalized news stories, or find ourselves listening to a 30-minute dose of complaining and gossiping with those people around us, the effect on the brain is the same as if we had lived those experiences ourselves. The good news, according to Sapolsky, is that the negative effects of excessive stress can not only be stopped, but also reversed “once the source, psychological or physical, is removed or sufficiently reduced.” Limit your exposure to negativity by staying away from people, environments, and sources that are negative.

Resist the urge to use self-defeating language. We've all experienced a colleague saying, "You look tired." All the air goes out of our sails and suddenly we feel tired and depleted as we respond, "Yeah, I guess I've been under a lot of stress lately." We do the same thing to ourselves. If you don't feel well, never say it aloud to anyone. Instead, say, "I could use more energy." Also avoid the use of limiting words. Never say cannot when referring to yourself. Instead, reach for a higher-energy statement such as "When I can…" Other limiting words include hopefully, perhaps, one day, and maybe.

Begin and end all communications positively. Today this is especially important when using electronic media, as your messages live in cyberspace forever and continue to define you. It's imperative that the last thing you type is a positive word leading to positive thoughts. Try "Cheers" or "Best" or "Keep smiling." Your brain reaps the benefit of this positive thought, and the recipient gets an upbeat impression of you. It's a twofer.

Begin and end your day positively. Before you go to sleep at night, thank yourself for a great day. When you wake up, the first words in your head should be something like, "I feel absolutely fantastic, glad to be alive. I know today will be successful for me."

Make use of superlatives. In business, we are supposed to be subdued. But when someone asks you how you are, notice the difference between saying, "I'm fine," and "I feel absolutely amazing and vibrantly healthy." Using superlatives bumps your energy to a higher level.

Think bigger than what you actually desire. If all you really want is to land a specific client, by setting this as your intention and thinking of it every day, you will no doubt get it. But if you set your intentions much larger than your core desire—say, to acquire ten new significant clients this year—you trigger several positive psychological benefits. As you daydream and imagine a larger scenario, your core desire starts to feel easy and much more attainable.

A simple way to apply the science of neurogenesis is to be conscious and consistent in thinking positive, proactive thoughts—about your potential, your dreams, your goals, and your achievements. Taking control of your thoughts in this way will help you actually become that accomplished, positive person.

In his new book, Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life (BenBella, 2012) , Trevor Blake outlines recent evidence for neuroplasticity and offers several ways to defend oneself against effects of negative stimuli in our everyday environment. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock/Bangkokhappiness.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

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  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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