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The art of being someone else

The brain has been described as the world’s most sophisticated computer. Every day we spend hours uploading information and processing new data without pausing to consider how it all works. Unlike other animals, our brains have evolved the capacity to think logically. Rather than exist in a primitive vacuum, this ability has enabled us to transcend our basic nature and assume godlike powers we can then use to good or bad effect.

Look around you. Every modern convenience you can see started out as an idea in the mind of a human being. We’ve built vast cities and initiated journeys into outer space. Circumnavigated the globe and discovered mineral riches in abundance. We’ve even cracked the code of life itself, learning how to cure previously incurable diseases. But this incredibly versatile tool we’ve used to such dazzling effect has one major flaw. It simply cannot turn itself off.

For centuries, scientists believed the brain was fixed, or ‘hard-wired’. Any changes to our basic nature could only be superficial and short-lived. The two most influential factors were thought to be genetics and the environment. If you were born in the wrong family and the wrong neighbourhood, your chances of rising above your station were minimal. New research has overturned this long-held theory.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to develop new neural connections, even when severely damaged. Groundbreaking advances in conditions such as autism and stroke have demonstrated this flexibility beyond any doubt. Psychiatrist Norman Doidge’s excellent book The Brain That Changes Itself documents cases where stroke victims have been taught to re-use damaged limbs, by tapping into areas of the brain used for other functions. This new research has profound implications, not only for the treatment of physical conditions, but in the way we perceive and treat emotional disorders.

Bad habits are notoriously difficult to break. Every New Year we vow to give up smoking, or lose weight, only to succumb to temptation shortly after. Why is this?  One of the reasons is that old habits are so deeply ingrained. To change some unfavourable aspect of ourselves, we have to devote an enormous amount of time and energy. All our natural inclinations seem to rebel, causing us to lose heart and give up early. Giving up then reinforces all the old beliefs that we’re weak-willed, or simply not committed enough. The negative cycle starts up again.

One method used to change long ingrained habits is repetition. Repeating a positive phrase or behaviour over and over forges new connections in the brain. Neuroscience has a saying for this. ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’. The more any new pattern is repeated, the more permanent the change. Positive thinking alone, however, is rarely enough. Techniques like visualisation (imagining a future success), when used in conjunction, are often far more effective and help reinforce these new connections. Sports psychologists have been using this technique for decades but, up until now, no-one has been able to measure the results with any accuracy.

In our endless quest for self-improvement, we face one formidable barrier. The subconscious mind. Estimates are that we use between 5-10 percent of our overall brain capacity. The remaining 90 percent operates beyond our conscious grasp, responsible for critical functions like the immune system, cardiovascular system and the regulation of core body temperature.

The subconscious also stores memories, including traumatic events we may have experienced in the past. These are often replayed to us in the form of phobias and anxieties, relentless computer programmes that come to dominate our lives. The purpose of psychoanalysis and therapy is to confront these deep-rooted fears and challenge them, enabling us to finally move on. The brains remarkable adaptability makes such interventions possible.

We live in an age of almost limitless possibilities. Technology has brought us untold innovations, often in the realms of science fiction. But we still have a long way to go in terms of evolution. The wish to transcend our human failings is universal. Now, with more and more information being made available, we have the chance to make significant improvements in all areas of our lives. Science, once the bastion of cold, hard research, is beginning to embrace theories that only decades ago would have been unthinkable. Change is not only possible, it’s right here at our fingertips. We have the best computer in the world – let’s use it!

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