Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

You Change Your Brain; It Changes Back


Long Walk

Some readers may already know that I’m a big fan of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a branch of psychology that deals with changing our emotions, choices, and experiences by changing our thoughts. There are two things I like especially about CBT. First, we can get a lot out of it on our own, without professional intervention (although good cognitive therapists can be worth their weight in iPhones), for instance through learning idea repair. Second, it really makes a difference. CBT has been known to work better than drugs for depression, for example, and works just as well for many other kinds of issues, big and small.

These two advantages are probably why researchers at the University of Chicago launched a study to see if teaching some basic CBT techniques to teens at high risk for committing violent crimes would make a difference in their lives (“Preventing Youth Violence and Dropout: A Randomized Field Experiment,” by Sara Heller, Harold A. Pollack, Roseanna Ander, Jens Ludwig, May 2013).

Did it work? Well, it was hugely successful … and then it was pretty much completely unsuccessful.

By “hugely successful,” I mean that in the first year of the program, incidence of violent crime was reduced by nearly half (44%) among teens who had taken the program–yet as NPR reporter Shankar Vedantam points out (“Therapy Helps Troubled Teens Rethink Crime“), the effects faded to nearly nothing within a year after the program ended. In other words, CBT techniques made a huge difference while they were in use, but the teens in the study seem to have forgotten or rejected the techniques after they had been away from them for a  while.

Unfortunately, this pattern is all too familiar to anyone trying to change habits: we have a behavior we want to change, we fumble around until we find an approach that works, we make a big change, we eventually become very confident and stop working at it so hard, and then often–not always, certainly, but often–we lose all the ground we gained. It certainly has happened to me. Unfortunately, while we can reprogram our brains, overwriting years and years of habit usually requires years and years of new behavior.

But all of this is good news. Why? Because it suggests one obvious, easy explanation for why we fail so often at habit change. It’s not the only reason we fail–habit change is hard–but it’s probably a key one, and it’s that once we see ourselves acting in a new way, it’s easy for us to think that we’ve changed for good and don’t need to do all the hard work any more to keep the change going. Apparently, we do need the hard work. I’m sure that sounds depressing, but think back to a time when you’ve made a positive change in your life, when things were going well. What sticks with you? I can’t speak for your experience, but for me, thinking back on those times, what sticks with me is not that it was a slog, but the happiness at what I was achieving and pride that I was achieving it. Hard work isn’t really so hard when we’re seeing real results, and while we can’t count on great results all the time, any approach that works in our lives is worth sticking with long after it seems to have had its effect. It’s the difference between tasting success and locking it in.

For the teens in the study, tasting success has already made a big difference in their lives. Quite a number of them have avoided imprisonment, injury, and even death just from that one small study. Even if the effects are temporary, the study is worth far more than it cost–but the techniques they’re learning, like the techniques we can learn in our own lives, will mean the most if they and we find ways to stick with them for life.

Photo by JonoTakesPhotos



  1. Darren T  •  Jul 4, 2013 @6:39 am

    I’ve had similar mixed success with my own habit change efforts over the past couple of years. Some changes have stuck, others have slipped. A lot seems to depend on the inherent reward of the bad behaviour I’m trying to shift. The more enjoyable the thing I want to move away from, the greater the elasticity and propensity to snap back when my mental back is turned. Which I suppose is fairly standard.

  2. Luc  •  Jul 4, 2013 @10:36 am

    Ain’t that the truth! And then there are the behaviors that we keep thinking will provide some kind of enjoyment that hardly ever do …

  3. libby  •  Jul 28, 2013 @3:57 am


    There is total proof that the brain can be rewired.
    Take a look at the rational recovery website.
    Basically there are two parts to the brain.
    Firstly let’s start with the lower brain. The lower brain is responsible for our survival -it sends out signals for hunger, thirst, sex, temperature regulation.. etc
    The lower brain or mid brain, is non thinking and sends these survival signals out a lot like a computer generated program me.
    Every animal/reptile has a lower brain which is programmed for survival… but we humans are unique as we have a higher brain ( pre frontal cortex) which is intellectual, as it has the ability to reason, make decisions and is logical. It also controls our voluntary muscle movements.

    The lower brain stores habits. Once we create a habit the lower brain stores this habit (it loves patterns) and sends out signals to continue acting on this habit as if the habit was necessary for our survival. These signals are called ‘Urges’ and Lower brain will do all it can to make us act out our habit, for when we don’t act, it can feel like life death…

    The urges can be presented in many forms. They may be thoughts, physical sensations- basically anything/idea that supports us carrying out that habit/behavior against our conscious wishes ( that is if the habit is a bad one)

    The good news however… with our higher brain ( our intellectual higher thinking, logical brain) we can recognize these urges as being irrational and ‘not us’ and we have the choice to act or not.
    Rational Recovery refers to the urges where thought is involved(running commentary in your mind for example) as the Addictive Voice or (AV).
    With our higher brain we can use AVRT addictive voice recognition technique, to identify our urges and now we have THE CHOICE to not act.

    The coolest part,
    Lower brain can’t make you act. It will try every trick under the sun to seduce you, but when you identify your urges as ‘not you’ you shine a spotlight on the urge and you are able to DETACH from the urge.
    Overtime the more you don’t act, the more new neural pathways are created and the old pattern is overwritten. Basically the brain prunes what it doesn’t use.

    I hope this helps you.
    Here is a summary I took from brain over binge by Kathryn Hansen,

    That sums up these steps, which you can apply to any habit or compulsion ( just obviously substitute a few words) or check out fighting the urge by Dr Amy Johnson

    It can be done!! i have overcome many habits that have been quite debilitating.

    I still get urges from time to time, but I don’t act and I have gone long periods without experiencing urges.

    Cheers and sorry for the terrible grammar. i mean well.

  4. libby  •  Jul 28, 2013 @3:59 am

    the summary

    1. I viewed my urges to binge as neurological junk. (This means I quit believing the urges signaled a real need – physical or emotional – and stopped assigning the urges any value or significance whatsoever. I viewed them as automatic brain messages generated in my lower brain that deserved no attention.
    2. I separated my highest human brain from my urges to binge.(This means I realized the urges weren’t really me, but instead were generated in brain regions inferior to my true self. My true self resided in my prefrontal cortex – my highest human brain – and it gave me the ability to say “no” to binge eating. I had to know my urges were powerless to make me binge, and my true self had ultimate control over my voluntary actions.)
    3. I stopped reacting to my urges. (This means I stopped letting my urges to binge affect me emotionally. I simply let them come and go without getting wrapped up in them. This made the urges tolerable and actually rather easy to resist.)
    4. I stopped acting on my urges. (This was the cure for my bulimia, made possible by the three steps above. I didn’t have to substitute any other behavior or emotionally satisfying activity for binge eating. I only had to refrain from binge eating.)
    5. I got excited. (This was a bonus. By rejoicing in my success, I sped along the brain changes that erased my bulimia.)

  5. Luc  •  Jul 28, 2013 @11:26 am

    Thanks for your posts, Libby. That’s an interesting approach; I’m curious to look into it further.

  6. Yidke  •  Aug 5, 2013 @11:28 am

    Greetings, all
    Libby/Luc or anyone.. can you give me a citation on “The lower brain stores habits.”

    I talk a lot about making behavior changes into habits in the classes I design for prison inmates. I also like to sink behavior into its spot on the brain. I had not run into a locus for habits, and would like to know more.

    Yidke, aka Judith Reymond

  7. Darren T  •  Aug 12, 2013 @10:33 am

    In David Rock’s book Your Brain At Work (pages 24-26 ish, although that’s on a Kindle, so exact page ref may vary) he talks about the basal ganglia being the area of the brain that stores routines that become habits. He also mentions that the basal ganglia is (are?) a lot more energy-efficient than the prefrontal cortex, which is one of the benefits of habit-forming. You literally don’t have to think as hard to do something that’s a habit, rather than working it out from scratch.

  8. Luc  •  Aug 12, 2013 @10:54 am

    Who was that masked psychology-literate online marketing strategist?

    Btw, a post worth reading appears today on Darren’s blog about David Allen’s Getting Things Done and getting on/falling off the wagon:

Leave a Reply

Allowed tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: