Sunday, March 13, 2016

Switch on Your Brain by Caroline Leaf

The brain is malleable, and we can, by conscious effort, change our patterns of thought and the structures in our brains. These changes can lead to improved thinking, joy, and physical health. Caroline Leaf considers how to take advantage of our brains ability to adapt, neuroplasticity, in her book Switch on Your Brain.

The first, and longer, part of the book is devoted to making the case that the brain can be changed and that people can change their brains intentionally. People are not biological automata. They can control how they react to the situations they encounter, even if they can’t control those situations. Therefore, they can control the types and intensities of emotions attached to memories, and the patterns of thoughts they form. They do not have to default to toxic thinking (leading to stress, bad health and poor decision making), but can choose healthy thinking.

The central scientific notion that Leaf appeals to is neuroplasticity. She also finds support for her views in other related science, especially related to the structure and functioning of the brain (her appeals to quantum physics strike me as much weaker).

Leaf has a particular religious view as well, and frequently appeals to the Bible. I think it is fair to say that Leaf comes from a particular religious point of view relating to the power and nature of faith, one in which she is comfortable ending her prologue with a quote from Peace Pilgrim.

The science and scripture are in agreement in Leaf’s presentation. Both come across to me as being cherry-picked. Admittedly, this is a self-help book, not a scientific text. The potential damage of being over-selective with scripture is more troubling, though I don’t think Leaf twists them nearly as much as others I’ve heard.

The blunt conclusion of the first part is “mind over matter.” Leaf keeps this to the narrow notion that we can choose our reactions and therefore can alter structures in our brains that encode and manage memories and thought patterns. Of course, these have consequences in our health, happiness, and success in life.

The second part of the book is devoted to a five-step process to weaken toxic thoughts and implant and strengthen healthy thoughts. It begins with awareness of your own thoughts and feelings. This is followed by deep thinking and reflection on those thoughts, especially toxic thoughts you want to weaken and alternative thoughts you want to strengthen. Writing is used to aid this process. After writing your thoughts, you review them with an intention of finding solutions, new ways of thinking, and ways to reinforce those new thoughts in action. Finally, you take action by saying and doing things that reinforce the new thoughts.

This process has analogs in other psychology and self-help literature. Cultivating awareness is encouraged by proponent of the mind-body connection. Awareness and reflection both relate to forms of meditation. Even the 21-day length of the program (based on the amount of time it takes to form new structures in the brain) is in keeping with other literature on making new habits.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Leaf, Caroline. Switch On Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013.