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.

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5 thoughts on “Habits vs. Pathology

  1. pete, i think you have gone too far when you say: “It (the brain) does not change by thinking or talking or anything else your mind does.”
    there is a long history of meditators and their brains have been studied for example by davidson. they show clearly different brain patterns then usual people.
    what you say leaves all the people not doing neurofeedback in a place where they can not change their brains. in fact every second the brain changes, maybe not the habitual brain patterns.
    i think the relationship between brain and mind is closer. braintraining and mindtraining are different ways to change the brain, the one or other might be much more effective in one or other regard.


    1. Michael, good points. I could argue that meditation focuses more on the brain than the mind (it’s not about resolving old conflicts, etc), and I could certainly argue that Davidson’s work (that I’m aware of) is focused on meditators who literally lived a meditative life-style. The chances of a person who meditates even an hour a day in a “regular”life achieving the state of a 25-year zen meditator or one of the Dalai Lama’s monks seem pretty slim. And for many people with histories of trauma, high levels of anxiety, etc. achieving a meditative state is beyond difficult. Once again, the brain’s patterns are mutually exclusive with a true meditative state. Finally I’d point out that I asked why it is so hard to change habits. It’s not impossible. People do it many different ways–even going through the mind. But it’s a major task compared with what can be achieved with a decent training plan.

      1. pete, thank you for your comments. i totally agree that the stability and control over their minds the meditators davidson studied is unattainable for us meditating an hour a day. their ability to control their minds in every situation comes only through their very tough long training. but what we can certainly achieve here in the west with the right understanding of concentration/meditation techniques is to at least sometimes act different (cut through habitual patterns). this might not not change our eeg but it makes a difference. i remember a recent discussion on the braintrainer list about the stability of brain patterns measured with the tlc7. some assesments didnt change throughout the training, but the client felt much better and changed habits. could the same not be true for mind training, although you dont see much of a change in the eeg there is still change in behavior?

        you always instruct people when doing nfb ” dont think, dont try, just listen to the feedback” isnt that the same as a meditation instruction for concentration?
        my point is that it is best to have both, the mind techniques and the neurofeedback. when you have the ability to simply listen to the feedback, nfb gets more efficient, and efficient nfb makes it easier to concentrate. i also totally agree from personal experience that meditation techniques are not very efficient in trauma work, whereas nfb is. in the example of trauma, even after you calmed high arrousal through nfb, there are still wounds left, hopefully scarred, and there mind qualities ( for example positive thinking patterns like acceptance, patience and so on) help live with those.
        in all this i wrote i refer to your phrase that ” (the brain) does not change by thinking or talking or anything else your mind does.”

        i totally agree with your presentation on the power of neurofeedback.

      2. The issue is the difference between mental thought and mental “states.” First off, the mind is not provably epiphenomenal to brain, even if they’re correlative. That said, typical mental “therapy” doesn’t easily change state in a lasting way, which is why you can know what your problem is but not be able to fix it.

        “Habit” is “mind state over time,” as reflected in brain state, IMO. That’s why two people could have measurably similar brain activity, but very different mental experiences.

        Meditation is more than just thinking. It’s a repeated delving into a particular state, or it’s the refraining from specific mental activity. Over time, it presents an inside out way of changing mind and brain.

        That said, there’s no reason we need to be limited to either outside in or inside out. Ideally, we can use them together, which seems to be what NFB does.

        I’m looking forward to trying it as soon as I have a mentor.

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