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Book Review: The Brain That Changes Itself

An enlightening new book, THE BRAIN THAT CHANGES ITSELF: STORIES OF PERSONAL TRIUMPH FROM THE FRONTIERS OF BRAIN SCIENCE by Norman Doidge, M.D., is not about eating per se, but I recommend it because it is all about mental change. Although the title may sound daunting and dry, the book is anything but.

THE BRAIN THAT CHANGES ITSELF teaches us about how plastic—malleable and changeable—the brain is. For most of history, it was thought that the brain’s workings were fixed and permanent, that because we’re hard-wired, that’s how we stay. Although we do have instincts and a good deal of hard-wiring inherited through our DNA, there is much about ourselves and our lives that can be altered by thinking differently and taking actions in ways that reshape and rewire the brain’s neural pathways.

One relevant chapter in the book is devoted to stopping worries, obsessions, compulsions, and bad habits. Doidge writes, “When a person tries to resist a compulsion, his tension mounts to a fever pitch. If he acts on it, he gets temporary relief, but this makes it more likely that the obsessive thought and compulsive urge will only be worse when it strikes again.” Sound familiar? Agonize about eating a piece of cake, cave in and eat it, and, voilá, that inner tension disappears—but that action in response to your obsession makes it more likely you’ll binge again in the future. Doidge describes the condition of people who have actual Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as “brain lock,” explaining that the part of the brain which should “shift out of gear” does not and, instead, locks in a thought. This is similar to what happens with disregulated eaters who can’t stop thinking about food, eating or weighing themselves.

Doidge reminds us that the brain encodes behavior automatically. Repeat actions often enough and they become habit whether you want them to or not. As science says, neural pathways that fire together, wire together. But we can unwire them! Doidge offers up stories in which behavior is changed in striking and startling ways, and advises intense training—hours and days and weeks of practice to develop new, strong, viable neural pathways. It follows from his advice that you won’t get far doing a new behavior, say, stopping eating when you’re full, if you only do it once in a while. Frankly, you might as well go on eating if you’re not stopping more times than you’re eating on. This is why only people who are very seriously committed to becoming “normal” eaters actually get there. In your training stage, aim for each and every action you take to be conscious and healthy. See if it helps to imagine that your new behavior is rewiring your brain.