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  • Writer's pictureJulie Love


Whenever there is an activity that we wish we could do better, we recognize that practice and training is needed. We don’t expect our legs and lungs to just naturally have the strength and stamina to run a marathon, but accept that if we put work into running, the ability will improve. Maybe not to marathon levels, but at least some.

Yet when we need our brain to do something, the idea of practice rarely comes up. It’s curious that we view the most plastic organ in our body as some sort of immutable blob. We try something once, and decide based on that one attempt whether it is possible.

It’s like we live in a world with two baskets – the CAN and CAN’T baskets. The CAN basket is for the things I CAN do, they are EASY, and I DO them. CAN – EASY – DO are all basically the same thing. The other basket, well that’s for the things I CAN’T do, because they’re HARD and I DON’T do them because I CAN’T.

When a kid says “I can’t do this,” we try to encourage them by telling them “Yes you can.” But what they hear is us telling them “This is EASY.” Well, that's obviously not true. They feel like we're picking it up and putting it in the wrong basket – they know it's not EASY – that's why they DON'T do it, because it's HARD, and they CAN'T.

We all do this, often retrospectively. How many times have you worked very hard to learn a skill, and then when someone compliments you, you automatically say “Oh it's not that hard.” It seems conceited to say, “Thank you I worked really hard to learn this.” But it’s just honest. It’s acknowledging that most of life belongs in a third basket: “This is hard, and I am going to do it anyway.”

I can’t run a mile. If I were to go outside and try, I’d likely stop running fairly soon. But I know, if I did it anyway, and only ran a quarter mile… tomorrow I might run 3/8. In time, I might be able to run a half mile. If I stuck with it, it’s very possible I’d be able to run a mile. My legs and lungs can improve with persistent effort. I might never do it, but I know it’s possible.

The brain is the same. It needs practice. The first time you try to settle and try to meditate, it’s not going to go very well. Not surprising. Same with teaching your brain how to shift gears between activities, or settling to sleep. Remembering something – that takes practice. And same as the ability to go through a day without needing to walk anywhere can lead to my legs being less able to run that mile, being able to look up info quickly tells my brain that holding onto information isn’t necessary. If I want strong legs, I’m going to have to put some conscious effort into exercising them. The same is true of my brain.

Having a good memory is not just genes. Being able to fall asleep at night is not just luck. Meditation is not a mystical power. Modulating your reaction to anxiety is not bravery versus weakness. Managing your anger is not proof of having a more ethical intrinsic character.

Let me know in the comments which of these we should delve into first, to discuss the steps to take to train your brain to do them.

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