Let’s translate this idea into how you relate to your brain now and how you could be relating. Look at the lists below. Which do you identify with?
I don’t ask myself to behave very differently today than I did yesterday.
I am a creature of habit.
I don’t stimulate my mind with new things very often.
I like familiarity. It’s the most comfortable way to live.
If I’m being honest, there’s boring repetition at home, work, and in my relationships.
I look upon every day as a new world.
I pay attention not to fall into bad habits, and if one sets in, I can break it fairly easily.
I like to improvise.
I abhor boredom, which to me means repetition.
I gravitate to new things in many areas of my life.
Inventor: Your brain is constantly evolving. This happens individually, which is unique to the brain (and one of its deepest mysteries). The heart and liver that you were born with will be essentially the same organs when you die. Not the brain. It is capable of evolving and improving throughout your lifetime. Invent new things for it to do, and you become the source of new skills. A striking theory goes under the slogan "ten thousand hours," the notion being that you can acquire any expert skill if you apply yourself for that length of time, even skills like painting and music that were once assigned only to the talented. If you’ve ever seen Cirque du Soleil, you might have assumed that those astonishing acrobats came from circus families or foreign troupes. In fact, every act in Cirque du Soleil, with few exceptions, is taught to ordinary people who come to a special school in Montreal. At one level, your life is a series of skills, beginning with walking, talking, and reading. The mistake we make is to limit these skills. Yet the same sense of balance that allowed you to toddle, walk, run, and ride a bicycle, given ten thousand hours (or less), can allow you to cross a tightrope strung between two sky-scrapers. You are asking very little of your brain when you stop asking it to perfect new skills every day. Which one do you identify with?
I can’t really say that I am growing as much as when I was younger.
If I learn a new skill, I take it only so far.
I am resistant to change and sometimes feel threatened by it.
I don’t reach beyond what I am already good at.
I spend a good deal of time on passive things like watching television.
I will keep evolving my whole lifetime.
If I learn a new skill, I take it as far as I can.
I adapt quickly to change.
If I’m not good at something when I fi rst try it, that’s okay. I like the challenge.
I thrive on activity, with only a modicum of down time.
Teacher: Knowledge is not rooted in facts; it is rooted in curiosity. One inspired teacher can alter a student for life by instilling curiosity. You are in the same position toward your brain, but with one big difference: you are both student and teacher. Instilling curiosity is your responsibility, and when it comes, you are also the one who will feel inspired. No brain was ever inspired, but when you are, you trigger a cascade of reactions that light up the brain, while the incurious brain is basically asleep. (It may also be crumbling; there is evidence that we may prevent symptoms of senility and brain aging by remaining socially engaged and intellectually curious during our entire lifetime.) Like a good teacher, you must monitor errors, encourage strengths, notice when the pupil is ready for new challenges, and so on. Like a bright pupil, you must remain open to the things you don’t know, being receptive rather than close- minded.
Which one do you identify with?
I’m pretty settled in how I approach my life.
I am wedded to my beliefs and opinions.
I leave it to others to be the experts.
I rarely watch educational television or attend public lectures.
It’s been a while since I felt really inspired.
I like reinventing myself.
I’ve recently changed a long- held belief or opinion.
There’s at least one thing I am an expert on.
I gravitate toward educational outlets on television or in local colleges.
I’m inspired by my life on a day- to- day basis.
User: There's no owner's manual for the brain, but it needs nourishment, repair, and proper management all the same. Certain nutrients are physical; today a fad for brain foods sends people running for certain vitamins and enzymes. But the proper nourishment for the brain is mental as well as physical. Alcohol and tobacco are toxic, and to expose your brain to them is to misuse it. Anger and fear, stress and depression also are a kind of misuse. As we write, a new study has shown that routine daily stress shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making, correcting errors, and assessing situations. That's why people go crazy in traffic snarls. It's a routine stress, yet the rage, frustration, and helplessness that some drivers feel indicates that the prefrontal cortex has stopped overriding the primal impulses it is responsible for controlling. Time and again we find ourselves coming back to the same theme: Use your brain, don't let your brain use you. Road rage is an example of your brain using you, but so are toxic memories, the wounds of old traumas, bad habits you can’t break, and most tragically, out- of- control addictions. This is a vastly important area to be aware of. Which one do you identify with?
I have felt out of control recently in at least one area of my life.
My stress level is too high, but I put up with it.
I worry about depression or am depressed.
My life can go in a direction I don’t want it to.
My thoughts can be obsessive, scary, or anxious.
I feel comfortably in control.
I actively avoid stressful situations by walking away and letting go.
My mood is consistently good.
Despite unexpected events, my life is headed in the direction I want it to go.
I like the way my mind thinks.
Even though your brain doesn't come with an owner's manual, you can use it to follow a path of growth, achievement, personal satisfaction, and new skills. Without realizing it, you are capable of making a quantum leap in how you use your brain. Our final destination is the enlightened brain, which goes beyond the four roles you play. It is a rare kind of relationship, in which you serve as the observer, the silent witness to everything the brain does. Here lies transcendence. When you are able to be the silent witness, the brain's activity doesn't enmesh you. Abiding in complete peace and silent awareness, you find the truth about the eternal questions concerning God, the soul, and life after death. The reason we believe that this aspect of life is real is that when the mind wants to transcend, the brain is ready to follow.