Changing Our Brains to Change Ourselves


by Refuge intern, Christine Gilbert

shutterstock_163864124For years it has been believed that we are confined to the limitations of our own brains. The notion that what we learned as children will ring throughout our life, because the connections we develop in our brains will determine our limits, our abilities, and ultimately our future. An important theory in the field of neuroscience is Hebb’s Law, which essentially states, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” And while more recent research continues to confirm this understanding, there are many more layers unfolding. Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, author of “You are Not Your Brain,” tells us we have the ability to use our active minds to make decisions about how to focus attention within our brains. By bringing awareness to our thoughts, we can choose how to listen to our brains, or not to listen at all.

Dr. Schwartz speaks of the “True Self” and the “Wise Advocate” as essential parts in this process. He describes the True Self as the part of us that loves and deeply cares about our self. Sometimes this part is hard to find. That is where the Wise Advocate comes in. The Wise Advocate is the part of us that sees our thoughts and understands us. The Wise Advocate encourages us to value our True Self even when we don’t think we can. This part of us can examine our thoughts without getting caught up in emotions, and sort through what is true and what simply is not.

But how do we actually change our brains from those neuropathways that we formed a long time ago? Dr. Schwartz says we change our brain through four steps:

  • Relable—First, we must not turn away from intrusive thoughts or unwanted feelings. Instead, we must call them what they are. They are anxiety. They are fear. They are (fill in the blank).
  • Reframe—Next, we must recognize the bothersome nature of these thoughts, often recognizing they are not actually true.
  • Refocus—Instead of dwelling on the thoughts, we must turn our attention elsewhere. Turn to something more positive.
  • Revalue—Finally, remember the value of your True Self and do not give the intrusive thoughts or unwanted feelings any value. This part takes practice.

Our brains might not be as unchangeable as once believed, but that doesn’t mean this work is easy. It is certainly easier said than done. These four steps are a great beginning of a journey, but not the destination. If you are interested in learning more about how you can change, the counselors at The Refuge Center would love to walk beside you in your journey. For more information, please visit us at or call us at 615.591.5262.

Reference: Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz ‘You are not your brain’ at Mind & Its Potential 2011

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