Your Brain Can Change Your Mind

And Your Mind Can Change Your Brain.

More than 125 years ago, William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology that organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity. In regard to that insight—and too many others to recount—he was far ahead of his time. Thus he was more or less ignored. Until relatively recently, the accepted belief was that at a certain point the brain is finished developing (“cooked,” if you will). Thus the saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Now we know that isn’t true. The subject of plasticity has been getting more and more attention ever since it was discovered that the brain can change at any age—for better or for worse. In the normal course of events, changes in your brain are reflected in your behavior (mediated by your mental processes), and changes in your mental processes are reflected in your brain (mediated by your behavior).

There are two types of neuroplasticity, functional and structural. Functional plasticity is the brain’s ability to turn over a task from one area (that has been damaged) to another. Structural plasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt (change its physical structure) as a result of learning and experience.

Most of the changes that take place in your brain are outside your awareness and control, but in some cases you can encourage the process, resist it, or give it a good nudge. And your personality may play a role in the actions you take—or don’t take. Use it or lose it is a case in point.

Plasticity vs. Stability

Plasticity happens to be one of the two so-called meta-traits that subsume the five factors of the Five-Factor (OCEAN) personality model. The other meta-trait is stability. Plasticity and stability seem to be at opposite ends of a continuum, but when it comes to the capacity for sustained behavior change, the situation isn’t that black or white.


The functions of plasticity are exploration and the creation of new goals, interpretations, and strategies. The negative pole of plasticity is rigidity. Plasticity encompasses the factors of Openness to Experience (cognitive exploration and engagement with information) and Extraversion (behavioral exploration and engagement with specific rewards).

Each of the five factors has two aspects. You might have stronger tendencies for one aspect than for the other. In the case of Openness to Experience, the two aspects are:

  • Intellect: detection of logical or causal patterns in abstract and semantic information.
  • Openness: detection of spatial and temporal correlational patterns in sensory and perceptual information.

For Extraversion, the aspects are:

  • Assertiveness: incentive reward sensitivity and the drive toward goals.
  • Enthusiasm: consummatory reward sensitivity, and the enjoyment of actual or imagined goal attainment.

The functions of stability are protection of goals, interpretations, and strategies from disruption by impulses. The negative pole of stability is instability. Stability encompasses the factors of Conscientiousness (protection of non-immediate or abstract goals and strategies from disruption), Agreeableness (altruism and cooperation and coordination of goals, interpretations, and strategies with those of others), and Neuroticism (defensive responses to uncertainty, threat, and punishment).

The two aspects for Conscientiousness are:

  • Industriousness: prioritization of non-immediate goals.
  • Orderliness: avoidance of entropy by following rules set by self or others.

The two aspects for Agreeableness are:

  • Compassion: emotional attachment to and concern for others
  • Politeness: suppression and avoidance of aggressive or norm-violating impulses and strategies.

And the two aspects for Neuroticism are:

  • Volatility: active defense to avoid or eliminate threats.
  • Withdrawal: passive avoidance (inhibition of goals, interpretations, and strategies in response to uncertainty or error).
Preferences for Novelty or Conformity

Researchers suggest that the meta-trait plasticity reflects a tendency “to explore and engage flexibly with novelty, in both behavior and cognition,” while stability reflects a tendency “to maintain stability and avoid disruption in emotional, social, and motivational domains.”

People who are high in plasticity tend to be:

  • Higher in “externalizing behaviors”
  • Lower in conformity
  • Lower in morningness
  • Higher in divergent thinking

People who are high in stability also tend to be:

  • Lower in “externalizing behaviors”
  • Higher in conformity
  • Higher in morningness
  • Lower in divergent thinking

Although we all possess some degree of all five factors, considerable variation exists from one person to the next. The five factors, their aspects, and the numerous traits that go along with them all exist on a continuum. So even if two people had identical scores for, say, Conscientiousness, their scores for the aspects and traits could be different enough to lead to very dissimilar attitudes and behaviors.

If you haven’t taken the Five-Factor test yet, you can take it here.

And you can find lists of some of the traits associated with each of the five factors here.

Diving into the OCEAN
of Personality Traits

While creating and sustaining positive behavior change isn’t easy for anyone, it seems to be harder for some people than for others. Identifying their Enneagram type helps my clients hone in on their strengths and weaknesses and develop an awareness of the kinds of roadblocks they’re likely to face in the work we do together. But it would be even more helpful to be able to determine at the outset how open someone really is to change. Simply asking the question, which seems like an obvious solution, isn’t the answer since the basis of many personality traits resides in the unconscious (therefore outside conscious awareness).

Well, it appears there actually is an instrument that offers some clues about a person’s receptivity to behavior change.

In the fledgling field of the neuroscience of personality, the system that has been given the most scrutiny is what is referred to as The Big Five or The Five-Factor model of personality—aka OCEAN. OCEAN is an acronym for the five factors the test measures, which are:

The Five-Factor model doesn’t account for all aspects of temperament or personality, but it’s quite comprehensive, and numerous longitudinal studies have confirmed its validity as well as its predictive ability. As a result of being the personality model most used by psychologists, it has been the target of research in areas such as creativity, leadership skills, and the use of technology and even social media. Researches are also working on correlating variation in the volume of different brain regions to the five factors.

[You can take the test here.]

Each of the five factors is divided into two aspects, which are further divided into facets (individual personality traits) that correlate to one or, in some cases, both aspects.

Openness to Experience

If you score high in Openness to Experience, you probably have a vivid imagination, like to try new things, love learning, enjoy the arts, and prefer variety over routine. Openness includes the aspects of intellect and openness. Some traits related to intellect and openness are:

  • Imagination
  • Insight
  • Originality
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Perception
  • Wide variety of interests
  • Quickness
  • Ingenuity
  • Excitement-seeking
  • Fantasy
  • Reflection

If you score high in conscientiousness, you’re probably able to delay gratification. It’s also likely you can plan and organize effectively, work within the rules, and tend not to procrastinate or be impulsive. Conscientiousness includes the aspects of industriousness and orderliness. Some traits related to industriousness and orderliness are:

  • Persistence
  • Puposefulness
  • Self-discipline
  • Perfectionism
  • Consistency
  • Predictability
  • Resourcefulness
  • Dutifulness
  • Deliberation
  • Efficiency
  • Competence
  • Planning

If you score high in extraversion, you are likely to seek opportunities for social interaction, are comfortable with others, enjoy being the center of attention, and prefer action to contemplation. However, what separates extraverts from introverts, brain-wise, is their responsiveness to rewards. Extraversion includes the aspects of enthusiasm and assertiveness. Some traits related to enthusiasm and assertiveness are:

  • Gregariousness
  • Confidence
  • Cheerfulness
  • Warmth
  • Sociability
  • Positive emotions
  • Leadership
  • Provocativeness
  • Friendliness
  • Talkativeness
  • Excitement-seeking
  • Poise

If you score high in agreeableness, you’re probably respected and well-liked, are cooperative and sensitive to the needs of others, and generally get along with people. Agreeableness includes the aspects of compassion and politeness. Some traits related to compassion and politeness are:

  • Trust
  • Modesty
  • Humility
  • Patience
  • Empathy
  • Pleasantness
  • Moderation
  • Kindness
  • Loyalty
  • Cheerfulness
  • Cooperation
  • Consideration

If you score high in neuroticism, you may lack self-confidence, cope poorly with stress, focus more on negative emotions than positive ones, and have a tendency to worry or ruminate about your experiences. Neuroticism includes the aspects of volatility and withdrawal. Some traits related to volatility and withdrawal are:

  • Pessimism
  • Moodiness
  • Immoderation
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Timidity
  • Wariness
  • Insecurity
  • Self-consciousness
  • Instability
  • Over-sensitivity

How do you think high and low scores in the five-factor test might either support or impede behavior change? Within the five factor aspects (OCEAN), which individual traits do you think would exert the greatest effect on attempts at behavior change?

Next time, I’ll fill in another piece of the puzzle, one that is less widely known than the Big Five. It’s referred to as the Big (sometimes Huge) Two because its two factors are meta-factors that include the Big Five factors and provide us with that shortcut to determining an individual’s inherent capacity for succeeding with behavior change strategies.

Z Is for Zombie Systems

What could zombie systems (also known as alien subroutines) and blindfolded cup-stacking possibly have to do with behavior change? Quite a bit, as it turns out. But first, what exactly are these zombie systems and alien subroutines? According to David Eagleman in Incognito:

We harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions—from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee—are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems.

Eagleman uses the terms interchangeably. He says the term zombie emphasizes the lack of conscious access, while alien emphasizes the foreignness of the programs.

Some alien subroutines are instinctual, while some are learned; all highly automated algorithms become inaccessible zombie programs when they are burned down into the circuitry.

Cup-Stacking Smack-Down

Cup-stacking, at least as performed by Austin Nabor, is an example of a highly automated algorithm—and thus a zombie system.

Nabor has been practicing all the moves involved in cup-stacking regularly for several years. As a result, physical changes have taken place in his brain to hard-wire cup-stacking. He can now perform it automatically without thinking about it, which is why he can do just as well when he’s blindfolded as he can when he can see what he’s doing.

In the video (link above), 10-year-old Nabor faces off against David Eagleman mano-a-mano, as it were, and hands him a resounding defeat. Eagleman said of the contest that he wasn’t even an eighth of the way through his routine when Nabor finished. During the competition, both were fitted with skull caps to monitor electrical activity in their brains. Instead of burning more energy to complete his complex cup-stacking routine speedily and flawlessly, Nabor’s brain used considerably less energy than Eagleman’s brain used to perform the routine much more slowly. In fact, Eagleman described Nabor’s brain as serene.

Eagleman’s brain burned more energy because he had to think about what he was doing and conscious thought burns more energy than zombie systems and alien subroutines burn.

When a professional baseball player connects his bat with a pitch that is traveling too fast for his conscious mind to track, he is leveraging a well-honed alien subroutine.

Your brain rewrites itself based on the things you repeatedly practice, such has hitting a ball with a bat, driving, or swimming. Some of those things could be classified as skills while others might better be classified as habits. Whether they are skills or habits, once they become “etched into the circuitry of the brain,” you lose conscious control over them. Your brain doesn’t particularly care what skills or habits (good or bad) are turned into zombie systems. The purpose of the process, as Eagleman says, is to free up resources, allowing the conscious you to attend to and absorb other tasks.

Because you lose conscious control of zombie systems and they run automatically, it’s quite difficult to change them—to put it mildly.

Learning to Ride the Backwards Bicycle

Engineer Destin Sandlin, creator of the website Smarter Every Day, was challenged to ride a bicycle that had been modified so that when you turn the handlebars to the right, the wheel turns left, and when you turn the handlebars to the left, the wheel turns right. Watch him try—and fail—to ride the bike, and then offer to pay other people if they are able to ride the bike 10 feet.

“Once you have a rigid way of thinking,” Sandlin says, “you cannot change that, even if you want to.” Riding a bicycle, for most of us, is a hard-wired zombie system. Since we don’t have conscious control over the bicycle-riding algorithm, knowing that the bicycle has been altered has no effect on our ability to modify the algorithm—at least not right away.

It took Sandlin eight months of regular practice to learn how to ride the backwards bicycle. However, he noticed that the old pathway was still there and minor distractions, such as a cell phone ringing, could cause his brain to “jump back on the old road it was more familiar with.”

Sandlin’s young son, on the other hand, who had been riding a bicycle for three years, required only two weeks to get the hang of the modified bicycle.

When Sandlin attempted to ride a normal bicycle again after having more or less mastered the backwards bicycle, he couldn’t do it at first. But after about 20 minutes, his brain slipped back into gear, and he was able to remain upright. Think about that when you’re struggling with changing a habit you’ve had for years or maybe even decades. It takes a great deal of repetition and persistence to master a replacement behavior but very little provocation to revert back to the old path.

Consciousness on the Sidelines

Having the knowledge, information, or even will to change your behavior are all System 2 (conscious) processes. They’re certainly useful and even desirable. But a habit is a System 1 (unconscious) zombie system that is not immediately responsive to your conscious intentions or attentions.

In fact, those System 2 processes can sometimes get in the way. Eagleman says:

Not only do we run alien subroutines; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea. As an example…I mentioned that thoughts come to us and we take credit for them (“I just had a great idea!), even though our brains have been chewing on a given problem for a long time and eventually served up the final product. We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

Essentially we come up with conscious explanations for unconscious systems we have no access to. When we think we understand something, but we don’t, we’re likely to also think we know what to do about it. But we don’t.

If your brain is running an alien subroutine or a zombie system you don’t want it to run, you have to make like Destin Sandlin and practice the new routine over and over and over again. And you have to be prepared to have your brain “correct” you back to your old behavior at the least provocation.

When that happens, it’s far more productive to get back up on the horse—or bicycle—than it is to create a story about it.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

U Is for Urgency

According to the gospel of Dr. J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwestern University, paraphrased by Dwight D. Eisenhower in a speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, and subsequently adopted by Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.

You’ve probably seen—or at least heard of—the Eisenhower Box or Covey’s time-management matrix. Maybe you’ve used it. In any case, it has gained traction to the point where it’s generally accepted as a viable operating principle by nearly everyone who’s trying to be more productive, effective, or successful.

The four quadrants in the matrix are:

  • #1: Urgent and Important
  • #2: Important but not Urgent
  • #3: Urgent but not Important
  • #4: not Urgent and not Important

Although I understand the concept, this matrix has never seemed useful to me so I haven’t paid much attention to it. But the wide acceptance of it has had a profound effect, one that I encounter repeatedly when I talk to my clients about change: it has turned urgent into a dirty word.

Gentlemen, Define your Terms!

The definition of important is: of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.

The definition of urgent is: compelling or requiring immediate action or attention; imperative; of pressing importance.

According to proponents of the matrix:

  • Important tasks contribute to your long-term personal or professional goals or mission. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but typically they’re not. Focusing on important tasks puts you in a responsive mode, which keeps you calm, collected, and inventive.
  • Urgent tasks, however, require immediate attention, which puts you in a reactive mode. You become defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly-focused. Furthermore, urgent responsibilities require immediate attention. These activities are often tightly linked to the accomplishment of someone else’s goal, and not dealing with them will cause immediate consequences. Urgent tasks are characterized as: crises, pressing problems, deadlines, emergencies, last-minute preparations, and (my favorite) fire-fighting.

This is a whole lot of hooey for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. The most annoying aspect of the matrix is the seeming conflation of urgency with emergency.

An emergency is defined as: a serious situation or occurrence that happens unexpectedly and demands immediate action.

While both urgent tasks and emergencies require action or a response now, not everything that’s urgent is an emergency. And there is nothing inherently negative in the definition of urgent, which begins with compelling: evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.

If It Feels Good, Don’t Do It?

According to the matrix, or interpretations of it, pleasurable activities are neither urgent nor important, so they should get the lowest priority in terms of how you spend your time. Try telling that to the part of your brain that runs you, and which is not remotely interested in all that stuff in box #2.

The unconscious part of your brain (System 1) is interested in immediate gratification, not long-term satisfaction. That’s why (I’m guessing…) you don’t always do what’s in your own best interest, even when you’re clear about the benefits of doing those things or the consequences of not doing them.

Why are pleasurable activities banished to the bottom of the heap, anyway? That seems somewhat puritanical. Pleasurable activities are rewarding to the brain, so you naturally want to experience them—and, one way or the other, your brain will see to it that you do.

In fact, anything you experience as urgent falls under the operation of System 1, whether it’s good for you or not. All of your planning and evaluating and strategizing require the attention of System 2, the conscious part of your brain. The matrix is a System 2 product. It’s logical and it seems like a really good idea. System 2 has millions of really good ideas. (Anything you classify as important but not urgent is, until you take action on it, nothing but another good idea.)

System 2 forgets it is often a mere bit player in the game of life.

Make What’s Important also Urgent!

The prime directive of System 1 is your survival. It carries out that directive in a number of different ways, one of which is to maintain the status quo. When you try to change your behavior, System 1 “corrects” you back to your previous path.

For example, per the matrix, you may decide that it’s really important to make different choices in regard to exercise, eating, snapping at your co-workers, or the amount of sleep you get. If so, you will likely notice that important is often insufficient to maintain your commitment to making those changes. That’s because, from moment-to-moment, System 1 will keep you focused on what it considers to be urgent. You simply don’t have enough System 2 attention to continuously override System 1’s impulses.

System 1 is powerful and pretty relentless. If you want to change the status quo, you need an equally powerful and relentless force to counteract it and to get it to work for you rather than against you. So the best thing you can do is make what’s important as compelling to your brain as possible. You want to have a sense of urgency about accomplishing what really matters to you. If you don’t have that sense of urgency, then what you claim is important to you is nothing more than a good idea or intention—you know, those things famously paving the road to hell or at least to disappointment, mediocrity, and failure.

You’re much more likely to take action based on what’s important to you if you—and your brain—feel a sense of urgency about it. Get your brain to take on those good ideas and intentions as if your life depends on it because, not to be overly dramatic, it probably does.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

Benefits, Celebrations, and Rewards


Your brain is wired for survival—survival, that is, in the rough and tumble world of the savanna your ancestors roamed 2.5 million years ago. Part of the wiring for survival includes the reward pathway, the purpose of which is to help you remember and repeat activities that are good for you and remember and avoid activities that are bad—possibly even deadly.

Every cell in our brains—every moment of our mental lives—is intimately connected to entire history of life on this planet. —Ferris Jabr, Scientific American

As a case in point, the reward pathway is even older than we are; it evolved in worms and flies about a billion years ago.

Your brain’s reward system operates with or without your participation, which is why you can develop habits you don’t want to have that may be extremely difficult to change or stop. The most effective way to alter those habits, or any behavior you would like to change, is to make use of the reward system.

But maybe you think you don’t—or shouldn’t—need to reward yourself for doing what you want to do or what’s in your own best interest. Maybe you believe knowing what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how to do it is sufficient. You’re an adult, right? You have self-discipline and self-control. Or you can develop it. Rewards might be OK for young children. Or pets. But you don’t need them.

If that’s where you’re coming from, well, science does not support your position. It turns out all of us are hardwired to be “insatiable wanting machines.” If we don’t learn how to use the brain’s reward system, it will continue using us.

Gold Stars

I hand out a page of stickers to the clients in my Goals, Habits & Intentions course, and the reactions are always interesting. Some people love them and immediately figure out how to use them as rewards. Others hold onto them for weeks, wondering what to do with them. (“Why do I have these?”) Some have no problem connecting awarding themselves a sticker with getting a reward. Others go through the motions without making that connection.

Stars and stickers are obviously only one type of reward, but they’re easy to get and use and can provide a strong visual reinforcement, as I recently rediscovered.

There are four things I do early in the day and again near the end of the day. I can’t turn them into a routine for various reasons, so that’s not an option. They’re all things I want to do. No one told me I have to or should do them. But in the moment, at any given time, the unconscious part of the brain, which is focused on immediate gratification, can almost always find something more interesting or enjoyable for me to do.

I noticed that a lot of my self-talk was taken up with prevaricating about doing one or more of the four things. Should I do it now or later? OK, I’ll do it after [fill in the blank]. And as the day progressed, it would get easier and easier to not do something and then rationalize as to why that was acceptable. I was using a lot of conscious attention and getting mediocre results. Although I was doing these four things twice a day most of the time, I don’t want to do them most of the time. I want to do them all of the time.

Knowing what I know about how the brain works, I mentally slapped myself upside the head and got out a sheet of small but sparkly gold stars. I decided I would reward myself with one gold star after completing the four things in the morning and a second gold star when I completed them again at the end of the day. I apply the stickers to the small wall calendar in my bathroom where I also keep track of how much walking I do each day.

Instituting the gold star system has had two significant results:

  1. I have had zero incompletions, meaning I’ve been able to award myself all the gold stars I’ve been eligible to receive.
  2. My self-talk now serves to remind me what I have yet to do before I can get the next gold star. So instead of dithering about whether or not to do it, my self-talk serves to keep me on track.

My brain anticipates the dopamine hit I’m going to get from slapping that sticker on the calendar. And instead of having to make excuses for myself for why I haven’t done something, I get to acknowledge and enjoy the fact that I’m actually doing what I want to do.

Benefits Are Not Rewards

A benefit is something that is advantageous or good. Benefits can be short-term or long-term. They result from actions you take. (Of course, you can also benefit from actions other people take or from fortunate changes in circumstances, but you have no direct control over those things.)

If there were no benefit to you for embarking on a particular course of action (completing a project or goal action plan, changing or starting a habit, or following through on an intention), there would be no point in doing it. Benefits answer the question of why you want to do something. So it’s useful to clearly identify all the benefits that would—or could—accrue if you accomplish what you set out to do.

But a benefit is not a reward. I get a different benefit from each of the four things I do as well as a general well-being type of benefit from doing all of them. One of the four things is a series of stretches that takes five minutes or so. The short-term benefit is I feel good during and after doing them. The long-term benefit is I’m more flexible and have less back and shoulder tension. I have to do the stretches consistently in order to get the long-term benefit. Giving myself a reward each time I do them helps me be consistent.

I already knew what the benefits were before I began using the gold stars, but that kind of knowledge has no impact on the brain’s reward system. Knowing the benefit of doing something takes place in the conscious part of the brain; the reward system operates at the unconscious level of the brain (remember the worms and flies?). The reward system isn’t logical; it’s functional.

Celebrations Aren’t Rewards, Either

In behavior-change terms, a celebration is an impromptu acknowledgement of something you’ve accomplished. The difference between a reward and a celebration is in how you use it, not what it is. In order for something to be effective as a reward, you need to crave it. That’s because dopamine is triggered by the expectation of a reward. So in order for you—and your brain—to crave a reward, the reward needs to be something you really want (enjoy) and it needs to be identified ahead of time. What exactly will you get when you complete or accomplish the thing you set out to do?

I know my reward for doing that series of four things will be another gold star, so my brain pushes me to do what I need to do to get it because it craves it. (Sometimes my brain is a really cheap date.) And the more gold stars I accumulate, the stronger the craving becomes. If I were to spontaneously decide to treat myself to a movie or a glass of wine for earning the maximum number of gold stars in a week, it would be a celebration. If I planned to do it ahead of time, it would be a reward.

Celebrations are great! Go ahead and celebrate your successes and accomplishments. But don’t try to substitute celebrations for rewards because they will not help you train your brain to do what you want it to do. If you have trouble identifying suitable rewards, pay attention to how you celebrate and the treats you give yourself. You may be able to use some of those things as rewards.

The Bottom Line

Benefits, celebrations, and rewards are all rewarding to experience, but they serve different purposes in terms of motivation and incentive when it comes to effecting behavior change. Because the reward system operates at the unconscious level, you can’t simply dismiss it or try to circumvent it. The best course of action is to take advantage of it and work with it. Otherwise, you may be unwittingly reinforcing behaviors you don’t want.