Ben came to my elementary school in the middle of sixth grade and immediately established himself as the Alpha. His voice was changing, he had a shadow of hair on his upper lip, and (according to my friend), he knew how to French kiss. He was also quick on the uptake and within a matter of weeks, had divined most of our little secrets and Achilles’ heels.
I found this out publicly when I delivered a message to his teacher, whose classroom was next door to mine. He saw me and despite never having met or interacted with me, announced, “Oh look! It’s the Brain!”
Yes, it could have been worse, far worse. But remember when you were in sixth grade and desperately wanted to be somebody, ANYBODY, other than who you were? When you were dealing with weird body hair and sweat, training bras and unwanted erections, when you just wanted to belong without being thrust into the spotlight? Ben reduced my identity as a good girl who was smart and did her work into a single label that somehow made me feel like I would never be one of the girls he French kissed (I wasn’t). And while it’s been over forty years, I remember those four months of being “the Brain” quite well (Ben’s nicknames stuck. Like I said, it could’ve been worse).
In fact, I think about it a lot these days. Because Ben was right. I am a brain. But so was he, and so are you, and so is everyone in this world.
What could this possibly mean? Are you saying to yourself, “But I’m not smart! I’m not intellectual! No one ever called me a brain!” It doesn’t matter. We are ALL brains, each and every one of us, and in a weird, comforting way, this knowledge is making me feel a lot better about all of my shortcomings, my poor decisions, my lack of abilities in certain areas, and the fact that I’m living in a body that’s aging in a world that glorifies youth. When I think of myself as being my brain, as opposed to having a brain, I’m stepping into a place of power where I have a much greater measure of control over my decisions, my actions, and the trajectory of my life than I would if I simply had a brain that was a bit player in the process.
Think about the brain. We think of brains as synonymous with intellect, but that’s a gross oversimplification as well as an understatement. When you delve into the miracle of the brain—the cortex and cerebellum and brain stem and spinal cord, along with the accompanying substructures and the central and peripheral nervous system—you begin to understand that it’s the brain that not only makes us who we are, but gives us the self-awareness to appreciate who we are. It’s this unique structure that each of us possesses that allows us to learn how to play the violin, governs who we fall in love with, structures our memories and dreams in linear forms that make sense, and enables us to adapt—with varying levels of success or pathology—to unexpected changes in our lives. We are jealous and irrational and altruistic and reasonable because of our brains.
Every sensory impression and every motor output is processed through the brain. Think of it as a computer that controls your life, making sense of billions of bytes of information streaming in and coordinating a response to that information. What we think of as our body, our mind, and our personality are merely constructs of the brain. And the brain remembers and learns and allows us to adapt our outputs based upon the inputs. When we drink too much on Saturday night, we know how to modify our behavior so it doesn’t happen again—or at least drink a big glass of water with two Advil to minimize the consequences. If we embarrassed ourselves on Saturday when we were tipsy and remember the associated discomfort, we’ll modify our behavior in the future. Maybe we’ll drink less, maybe we’ll start telling fewer jokes. But because of the brain, we are all constantly evolving, adapting, and changing our behavior (outputs) based upon in the information coming in through the sensory nervous system.
The more exposure we have to the same inputs, the more adept and less effortful our responses become. The brain is anything but stupid. If we go to work every day and sit in the same chair in the same posture, it doesn’t take long for the brain to anticipate that posture and adjust the muscular output to seat us properly. The more frequently you do something, the more habituated your brain cells become to working together. Can you think of something you had to learn that used to be really hard for you? Is it easier now? Is it so easy now that you don’t even need to think about it?
Our lives are complicated, and making patterns frees up space in the human brain to focus on important things. Because of patterns, you can drive and talk at the same time. You can walk while you’re figuring out what to do about your taxes or your kid’s excessive data charges because you KNOW how to walk because you’ve been doing it all your life. You know who you are in the office hierarchy or within the dynamics of your interpersonal relationships, and you don’t have to defend your position constantly. You have a sense of who you are as a human being and, for better or worse, that is the picture you project for the world to see.
But the very habits that allow us to lead complex and productive lives can also cause us immense pain. Physical habits—as opposed to conscious movements—become embedded in the more primitive (less cognitive) areas of the brain through years and years of repetition and can cause muscular imbalances and pain which, if left untreated long enough, can permanently change the skeletal structure of the body. Mental habits—procrastination, defeatist self-talk—can affect the quality of your work or your life. And emotional habits or responses can show up as PTSD or dissociative affective disorders or other trauma-related behaviors where one is reacting to something that occurred in the past rather than the circumstances of the present moment. Habituation is a double edged sword, and recognizing its benefits AND its dangers can help us maximize not only our productivity but our happiness and sense of well-being in this world.
Getting a handle on one’s habits, or “making the unconscious conscious” is the cornerstone of Hanna Somatics. And while Thomas Hanna largely limited his work to physical patterns (the term “somatic” is derived from the somatic nervous system, which controls voluntary movement, as opposed to the autonomic nervous system, which governs non-volitional and life-sustaining functions such as respiration, circulation, and digestion), his philosophy is no less relevant to non-physical patterns as well. Think of how often you define yourself in certain ways--as a parent, as a worker, as a friend, as someone who has or doesn’t have something—and how these self-reflections become truer and truer the more you repeat them. Think about how you spend your day and about the things you do without even thinking about it. Those are habits, habits that are just as powerful as your inclination to pick up your pen or mouse with your right hand instead of your left (reverse this if you’re left-handed) or to fall asleep in the same position every night.
We created our habits through voluntary action. And the only way out from habits that aren’t working are through voluntary action. Volition demands awareness. And awareness is hard. It’s easy to walk around doing what we’ve always done, thinking what we’ve always thought, feeling what we’ve always felt.
Changing is even harder. Change requires us to not only discard the familiar but embrace the new and unknown. But the fact that it’s hard doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Think about how much you’ve already learned already, and how much you had to practice to learn what you know, whether it’s writing neatly or reading music or coding. If it’s something you did a lot, your brain created a pattern. It might have taken longer than you thought it should, and you might not be as proficient as you think you should, but the knowledge is there.
You’re never too old to change. Twenty years ago, a scientist might have told you that the brain lost its neuroplasticity relatively early in life; a person in his thirties or forties would only be able to preserve the patterns that already existed and couldn’t create new synapses or patterns. We now know that to be false. While it might be harder to learn new things at an older age, there doesn’t seem to be a point at which a healthy brain stops laying down new patterns over old ones. As long as the stimulus is there, the potential to respond to the stimulus in a different, non-habitual way exists for the rest of your life. The people who say, “Well, that’s the way I am, and I can’t change”? They’re stuck, and that’s their decision. It doesn’t have to be yours.
Getting old has its challenges, but it’s a part of life—if we’re lucky. Instead of chasing the external fountain of youth through plastic surgery, why not switch paradigms and look within? Do your neurological housekeeping by staying mindful, staying active,, and staying curious. Go slow if you’re used to going fast, and go fast if you’re used to going slow. Learn to think critically. Do something hard. Notice.
Embrace your brain. What you see in the mirror every day is your brain reflected back to you. While you might not have been The Brain in sixth grade, you are YOUR brain now and for the rest of your life. It’s the best and most powerful computer in the world, and it’s all yours. And if you’re lucky enough to have someone call you The Brain, smile politely and say “thank you.” It’s true and as I’ve learned, it’s a pretty good thing to be.
 Where do diet and exercise come in? When you’re looking at your body from the outside in, working out and getting into shape might make you look better, and for a lot of people, this is motivation enough. But when you see yourself as a brain encased in the container of your body, appearances stop mattering as much. I’m not going to get bogged down in what you should eat for optimum brain function. Conventional wisdom around diet and nutrition changes all the time, and today’s brain power food now may turn out to be tomorrow’s poison. Plus, figuring out to eat all the time is a huge time suck. Instead, get honest with yourself. What makes you feel good? What makes you perform well? The easier and less complicated your diet is, the more likely it is that you’ll be wasting less of your limited prefrontal cortical space figuring out what to eat, leaving you free for really important things.
Exercise, on the other hand, is AMAZING for neurological health. Clinical studies have proven that regular movement not only enhances cognitive ability (students pedaling on stationary bikes while learning a foreign language had longer attention spans and greater retention than those sitting at regular desks), exercisers have lower rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s than non-exercisers. What’s the best exercise for brain health? Something you enjoy, look forward to, and will do consistently. If you love interval training or gardening or walking or yoga, that’s great. Just do something, anything, regularly, and let it become a new pattern for you.