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The Gospel in Words: If our brains are willing, why is it so hard for us to change?

In recent columns I have written about neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity. Brain plasticity is the relatively recent idea that the human brain can change itself. "For four hundred years this (idea) would have been inconceivable because mainstream medicine and science believed that brain anatomy was fixed" (Norman Doidge, "The Brain That Changes Itself").

There has been a spate of books on this subject recently by scientists, doctors, researchers and professors at prominent universities. These are not your usual self-help books, and yet, somehow they sound a lot like the old "what the mind can conceive and believe it can achieve" mantras of the Positive Mental Attitude movement.

For example, Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University has written "Mindset, The New Psychology of Success." Dr. Norman Doidge is on the faculty of Columbia University. The subtitle of his book is "Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science." Timothy Wilson, a professor at the University of Virginia, has written "Strangers to Ourselves, Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious." These books, and many like them, have a common theme: If we really put our mind to it, so to speak, we can change bad behavior or improve ourselves to significant new plateaus. But the real question is, if we can describe the possibility and process of behavioral change, why is it so doggone hard to do it? In this regard it turns out that there really is "no new thing under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Twenty-three centuries ago, Aristotle wrestled with the same issue and had suggestions astonishingly similar to our modern investigators of brain plasticity. And just over three centuries ago, John Milton has Satan, the "lost Arch Angel" tell us "the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."

The first step to changing our behavior is coming to the view that there is a need for change. While this is intuitively obvious, it turns out to be unusually complicated since "much of what we want to know about ourselves resides outside of conscious awareness." For this reason, "because of their own pride, stubbornness, or lack of self insight, (people often) stumble into a course of action precisely opposite to the one that would satisfy their hearts and minds" ("Strangers to Ourselves").

Another problem related to this is that we often deceive ourselves about what we are really like. That is, our personal narrative in our minds is often inconsistent with our actual behavior. A way to overcome this problem is to, in as detached a way as possible, actually observe our behavior: What do we really do as opposed to what we think we do. When we observe our actual behavior we can often be led, if we are so inclined, to recognize a need for change in that behavior.

Another impediment to change has simply to do with our belief in the possibility of change. According to Dweck, there are two types of views that people have of themselves. One is what she calls the "fixed mindset," that is, believing that your qualities are carved in stone. While this mindset does not rule out personal improvement, it severely lessens the possibility of significant change. On the other hand, there is the "growth mindset" which is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. This does not mean that we should have unrealistic views that "anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven. (But people with this mindset) believe that a person's true potential is unknown and unknowable; that it's impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training" ("Mindset").

Once you believe that you need to change and believe that it's possible to change, how then can we actually produce change in ourselves?

Next week: Aristotle and Kurt Vonnegut on the mechanics and process of change.

Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News. E-mail: