How To Rewire Your Brain So You Don't End Up Like Your Parents
Parents bless us with many things—life, food, water, shelter, poor habits and a sprinkle of trauma for good measure.
On the podcast All Hail Kale, documentarian and award-winning journalist Tim Samuels takes a discerning yet loving look at all things wellness.
To open the episode Beat Your Brain, Tim sat down for lunch with his father, photojournalist Sefton Samuels, and his cousin Ronnie, to talk about humanity’s least favourite activity: waking up in the morning.
Sefton had one word to describe himself in the mornings: “dreadful.” He speculated that Tim also inherited this “bad gene” that makes mornings “a pit of doom,” as Tim put it.
But that didn’t stop Tim from pursuing a fix.
Here is just some of the weird and wonderful advice Tim was given in his exhaustive search not only for better sleep but a better brain. Pun intended.
It starts with a name you might be familiar with - Dr. Deepak Chopra.
Dust off your old bellbottoms, it’s time to connect with nature
Alternative medicine guru Dr. Chopra advises you reach out to your inner hippie with conviction: “Walk barefoot on the ground or on the beach, or touch a tree for twenty minutes, or walk barefoot on grass.”
Apparently it's not about finding a brand of patchouli oil to perfume your feet with; it's about communing with stuff that can't be bought.
Channel your inner Kubrick
Neurofeedback is a brain-training process popular with businesspeople and some sufferers of PTSD and ADHD. It stands firmly in the “theory” section of therapies, selling itself using a commercialised testimony promising “unexplainable peace”.
The idea is that if you experience a six-week or longer period of sustained stress, you gain a negative habit and lose a memory. In Tim’s case, that meant he was waking up tired because he’d been overthinking.
In a twenty-day treatment, the customer wears a blue and red swim-cap-like hat with polka dots, which Tim says makes you look like “a World War II fighter pilot who joined the circus.”
Wearing the hat, Tim was instructed to watch a special laptop - whose video would fade out if he stopped concentrating.
“The brain is being rewarded with TV show when it’s operating in its well-functioning state,” he explains. Supposedly this exercise lays new neural pathways which allow for less overthinking.
Train your body to know your brain.
Chopra starts his day with four "affirmations":
“I’m going to have a joyful energetic body.”
“Am I enjoying a loving, compassionate heart?”
“Is my mind restless? Or is it quiet and alert?”
“Am I free?”
Upon asking himself these questions, Chopra “checks in” with his body to see if he actually does feel joyful, energetic, loving, and the like. If not, he figures out why and addresses the issue.
But don't force it, Chopra says. You don't have to "think positive".
“If you force yourself to think positive thoughts,” he says, “you’ll get stressed. And become exasperatingly positive as well!”
Replace bad habits with productive ones
Gabe Dean developed a pornography addiction at 23 years old, but overcame it and has been living porn-free for a year.
He first researched the neurological reason for porn addictions to develop, and found that addicts wired themselves only to be aroused by pixels, dispelling the need for physical human connection.
Quitting, he says, started by physically quitting. It’s not easy, but he emphasises that you don’t want to “reinforce the neurological pathways” that form bad habits. For him, that meant stepping away from the computer.
Since freeing yourself of bad habits also means freeing your time, you need to find something to replace the habit with, i.e. human contact, exercise and reading.
Use your brain and tell yourself what you want
Jan Scheuermann is a quadriplegic who participated in a fascinating neurological experiment.
Electrodes were implanted on her motor cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls voluntary movement. Rays pick up electrical signals from the electrodes, which are then fed through a brain-computer interface to a robotic arm and hand.
“It all happened in nanoseconds,” Jan says, “I thought, ‘Move right,’ and it moved right.” There was an initial learning curve, as she could only partially move the device, but she even improved the following day and progressed to the point where she completed a month’s worth of work in two weeks.
The next part of the experiment required Jan use the exact commands she’d mastered on the flight simulator. She said the simulator made her feel like she was “out of my broken body,” enabling her to fly amongst the clouds and see places she wouldn’t get to otherwise.
So what about Tim's mornings?
Adrian Williams, Professor of Sleep Medicine at Kings College London, informed Tim that the gene responsible for managing circadian rhythms is PER3 (Period 3).
And it turns out there are two types of night owl: those whose PER3 gene mutated so they’re genetically predisposed to staying up, and those who developed such behaviour in their formative years.
But in either case, are you stuck with it? Or can you actually reprogram your brain to adopt healthier choices?
After trying the various treatments for this episode, Tim found himself doing something he hadn't done in 20 years - talking to his dad on the phone before 9am.