Habits vs. Pathology

Alternative to Pathology

We’ve questioned the Pathology approach to looking at the brain, but what is the alternative.  Things in your life are not how you would like them to be.  Does that really have to mean you are “abnormal” or “sick”? Why can’t they be just habits?


I define habits as the things that “just happen” in our lives—without our choosing. If you fall asleep easily when you go to bed, that’s a habit you probably like. If you freeze when you have to speak in public, that’s a habit too. If you are nervous or down much of the time without any particular reason, that’s a habit of mood. If you act impulsively when you’d prefer not, that’s a habit of behavior.

Many of our habits have been turned into diagnoses over the past decades. A person who used to be “shy”, now has “social anxiety disorder.” And our habits now are often called symptoms. But they are still just habits—the things in our lives that “just happen”.

Changing habits is one of the hardest things we try to do. We take courses, do therapy, join support groups, make resolutions. Not much really works. Maybe it’s because we’re trying to change the wrong thing. We try to change our brains by changing our minds: talking reading, thinking, affirming, etc. But the evidence is that things really work the other way around.

Since the early 1990’s hundreds of studies have shown that habits of mood and thought and behavior that so much control our lives are tied to habits of energy in our brains. When researchers compared brain patterns of a general population against the patterns of people with habits of sadness, insomnia, creativity, etc., they found clear links between how your brain operates and how you operate. You can identify those habits in your brain that link with the habits in your life.

Changing habits

It’s hard to change a habit, but we know it can be done. Smoking 20 cigarettes a day used to just happen in my life; now it’s been a quarter century since I smoked one. I used to run and exercise every morning. It just happened. Today it’s an occasional urge, rarely acted upon.

But how do you change mental/emotional “pathology”?

Tens of thousands of people around the world have actually CHANGED their brain patterns in lasting ways! And when your brain changes its habits—you change yours as well.

You know you can change the rest of your body with exercise like aerobics, weight training or Pilates. But you probably don’t think about changing your brain that way. Unfortunately, since your brain uses 25% of the oxygen and 50% of the glucose in your whole body, it’s a pretty important organ to train.

Training the brain

But how do you train a brain?

The answer is, YOU don’t. The brain trains itself. It does not change by thinking or talking or anything else your mind does. If you want to change your posture or facial expression, learn to dance, you use a mirror. Look around gyms and exercise studios: Lots of mirrors. The brain too trains itself by working out in front of a mirror. It becomes aware of its habits—and tries out new ones.

Training your brain, like you would train any other part of your body is called Neurofeedback. Neuro—brain. Feedback—mirror.

Like the heart, your brain doesn’t see itself with eyes. When you do aerobics, your mirror shows a strong electrical beat measured by a pulse meter. When you train your brain, your mirror shows the patterns that consistently occur when billions of tiny electrical pulses zip through your cortical networks in an EEG map. Today, computers can record and reflect the speed and synchronization of those pulses over many brain different areas in real time.

Since the best way to get information into the brain is through your senses,feedback comes as music, videos, games, even doing tasks on the computer. You pay attention to the feedback, and your brain changes what “just happens” in your daily life.

Of course a new set of habits that works better for you can take a few months to stabilize, but if you train about an hour, at least twice a week new habits form—and remain—even when you stop training.

By training the brain itself, you are changing not the habits but their very root. How you sleep, how safe you feel, your ability to learn and pay attention, your stress levels—even if you never thought of changing them—often change as well.

Good training doesn’t change who you are. It expands what you can do, and shifts what “just happens” in your life.

Share this post: