Book Review: Rewire Your Brain by John Arden

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“If you want to change your life, you need to change your brain”

 

One of the big finds in recent neuroscience is the discovery of neuroplasticity.  Our brains are not hard-wired from birth.  If there is something your brain does that you don’t like (a bad habit you developed, an undesirable personality trait, negative thinking) you can reprogram it and create a better life.  Brain functions that include your thoughts, disposition to certain moods, sleeping habits, and memory can all be improved with a bit of focused attention and effort.  Rewire Your Brain by John Arden covers all these areas and more by detailing exactly what is going on in the brain and how you can change it.  In this summary I’ll mention a few techniques on how to train your brain to improve your personality, relationships, and memory.

 

Personality

The brain is constantly creating new connections or reinforcing old patterns.  The more neurons fire together the stronger their connection becomes.  If they don’t fire frequently, the connection becomes weaker and can be lost.  For example the more frequently you find yourself saying “I’m great at my job” or “I suck with women” the stronger those thoughts become and the more they will affect your life.  The same works for mood.  If you are in a position where you get angry again and again, those neurons will activate more easily and you will become increasingly susceptible to respond to a situation with anger.

 

You can work with neuroplasticity to turn feeling positive and upbeat into your default state.  Simply practice putting yourself in a desired mood throughout each day.  Get those connections good and strong through practice and eventually they’ll be firing all the time.  As John Arden says “The more you introduce a state (calmness, friendliness, etc) the more likely it is to become a trait”

 

There are a few tricks he mentions to practice promoting a positive mood:

 

Priming: Act as if you’re already in a good mood.  Use positive body language and smile.  Or just watch something funny (humor also strengthens the immune system).

 

Go outside: Light helps immune system and stops melatonin, the chemical that makes you tired.

 

Exercise: Exercise deals with the physical and emotional symptoms of stress.  It relaxes your muscle spindles and breaks the stress-feedback loop to the brain, cuing the brain that you’re not stressed anymore and it’s okay to relax.  Along with increasing feel-good serotonin into your system it increases hormones that stop stress before it happens and can even raise the stress threshold.

If you can’t get a workout going, at least do a bit of stretching.  Stretching releases built up tension and sends deoxygenated blood back to the lungs so your muscles feel rejuvenated.  As an additional bonus both exercise and stretching increase blood flow to the brain, which helps you to focus and retain what you learn.  Post-exercise is the perfect time to get important work done.

 

Create a positive narrative: Look for the good in a situation or memory that’s bothering you.  Focus on possibilities that are in front of you, not limitations.  One thing many successful CEO’s have in common is they focus on success and view obstacles as a challenge to be overcome, not as a reason to give up.  They have a stronger sense of control over their own destiny.  Rather than putting themselves in a victim role or saying “I can’t do it because I’m not rich enough, popular enough…blah blah blah” they focus on the reasons they can do something.  They see future success as something that is within their power at all times.

 

Be active.  Passivity breeds depression.  Any type of action, whether it’s cooking dinner or fixing that broken shelf, activates the left prefrontal cortex (area of your brain right above the left eye).  This area is also the part of the brain that is active when you are in a good mood.  Being active will wake up that part of the brain and begin to facilitate positive moods.

 

Another easy trick to activate this part of the brain is through labeling.  Just begin to notice what you’re feeling and label it “anxiety”, “sadness” or whatever it is.  Doing so also allows you to create an acceptance and detachment from the emotion, giving it less control over your actions.  {Side note: When you’re stressed or anxious, your amygdala (area by your brain stem) is pretty much firing on all cylinders.  Getting that left prefrontal cortex going will create a balance and ease the intensity of the stress.  Alternatively if you begin to feel stress and do nothing (when you’re looking at that cute girl but haven’t approached yet) that anxiety will only get stronger.  Those neural connections get strengthened, making it that much harder to approach the next time.  So don’t let anxiety fester.  Label it and if possible take action.  Taking action also allows your brain to learn that anxiety-producing situations are in fact tolerable.)

 

Social medicine: Don’t underestimate having a social support system.  Spending time with friends and family that care for and support you will help to lower stress, blood pressure, feelings of depression, slow down cognitive declines that come with aging, and help you sleep.  Physical contact with others also releases dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins which decrease stress, makes you feel good and strengthens the immune system.

 

Relationships

If you’re losing that loving feeling from a relationship, shake things up a bit.  When around new people the brain releases dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel awesome.  As you get used to being around someone the novelty wears off so dopamine doesn’t get released.  To get that feeling back go out and do new, exciting activities with your partner.  The novelty will release the dopamine and you’ll associate that feeling of pleasure with the relationship.

 

Memory

Memory is not something you have and can lose, it’s a skill that you can work on and practice. Improving your memory will take time and effort.  If you want to remember better increase the amount of attention you give (a.k.a. stop multitasking).  Also emotion is a powerful link for memory so make the effort to place emotional importance on a subject you wish to remember.

 

Tricks to improve memory:

The Loci Method (it’s simple but would take a bit of space to explain.  Just Google it if you’re interested)

 

Image inks – Link what you want to remember to something you see in your day.  For example “when I see my cup of coffee I’ll remember to call mom.”

 

Other Steps to Rewiring your Brain

In order for the brain to rewire itself, it needs the proper fuel.  Having a healthy diet and getting enough sleep is essential to making you’re new behaviors and attitudes stick.

 

Diet

There’s nothing mind-blowing here, but the book does have a fairly exhaustive list of the types of foods that help with specific brain functions.  For example peanuts, chicken, sesame seeds, yogurt, milk, and soybeans all contain an amino acid which gets converted to noreprinephrine and dopamine, which leads to increase in energy, feelings of pleasure, and a stronger memory.

 

Generally speaking, keep a balanced, consistent diet.  Don’t skimp on breakfast (a good breakfast increases energy, concentration, memory, problem solving and decreases stress) that includes fruit and protein (protein will not cause that mid-day sleepiness that a carb-loaded breakfast would).  Get rid of processed sugar (it’s linked to an increase in depression and aging while doing nothing beneficial).

 

Sleep

Sleep deprivation is linked with weight gain as well as a decrease in attention, learning, and memory.  Whatever you may have learned during the day will have a better chance of sticking if you get a good night sleep.  Neural connections that have been made during the day become strengthened as you sleep.

 

To sleep better maximize your light exposure during the day and have soft lighting at night to get the melatonin flowing, which causes sleepiness.  Don’t watch TV before bed, and don’t do anything in bed aside from sleep/sex so that your brain associates lying in bed with sleeping.  Lay off the alcohol before bed since that can wake you up during the night and get some exercise in 3-6 hours before going to bed.

 

For more information check out Rewire Your Brain by John Arden.  It’s slightly dry and very much feels like it was written by an academic, but it’s nice to have someone who sites published research studies to back up every claim he makes.  Plus there’s a lot of simple, easy to implement techniques for improving how your brain functions that will improve any area of your life.

GET THE BOOK:

Kindle

Paperback

 

photo credit: “lapolab” via Flickr & PhotoPin