You Are Not Your Brain (Except That You Are)

Probably confirmation bias at work here, but ever since I started mulling over New Year’s Resolutions and my objections to them, I’ve been seeing relevant ideology everywhere I look. Case in point: sometime in the last two days, and I can’t recall which store I was in at the time, I saw a book on display titled “You Are Not Your Brain!” It was crammed in there with some other self-help titles and weight-loss crash-course books somewhere near the checkout. It might have been a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I can’t remember, and it’s not important. What’s important is the title.

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I’ll go ahead and disclaim that I didn’t have time to look at the book. I was shuttling the two sprouts around, and if it’s not written down on my itinerary, it doesn’t get done. And I do hate to judge based on surface impressions rather than an in-depth analysis of content. I’m sure there’s something to the book; I’m sure it’s a fascinating read. (I may be giving more benefit of the doubt than is necessary or merited here, but we’ll go for it.) But the book itself isn’t even important. The title is. Because first impressions matter. Titles matter. You are nothing if not your brain.

You may not like the person that your brain has made you into. You may not appreciate all the things that your brain compels you to do. You certainly may not understand certain tendencies that your brain has. But to say that “You Are Not Your Brain” is to make the fatal mistake of assigning power over your decisions to somebody or something that is not yourself. As if there’s this evil spider-demon perched in your skull, making you eat extra cookies and watch reruns of The Biggest Loser. “I didn’t do that, my brain made me do it. This book can cure me of that bad decision making by helping me to countermand my brain.” No. Get a life.

(There’s a corollary here, for the legitimately chemically unbalanced and mentally ill. That sharknado is for real. And if you suffer from those conditions, then your locus of f’ed-up-ed-ness certainly is external.)

No, we are our brains. We are nothing if not our brains. Our hearts? Our souls? Whatever. Our souls are no more forced into making bad choices by our brains than my minivan is forced to go from zero to 60 in about five minutes and corner like a drunken ox by virtue of not being a cherry-red Lambo. (Lambos are fast, right? And do we still call them Lambos? … whatever, I don’t cars.) Facts are facts. Heart of a Mustang, Mind of a Minivan… sorry, you’re driving like a minivan, because that’s what you’re wired to do.

Which is not to say, of course, that you can’t don some electrical gloves and welding goggles, get in there and rewire the thing. If it’s spewing sparks and leaking plasma and pumping doubt and misery and desperation into your airways, making bad decisions and ruining your life, you can change that. Not overnight. It’ll take hours and days — or more likely, months and years — of studying schematics and learning about triggers and tendencies and fighting urges and really taking a good hard look at the way the spluttering gizmo works. You can change the way you think. But — and here’s the problem with a concept like “you are not your brain” — if you can’t identify the problem, you can’t fix the problem. If you’ve got a flat tire, it does you about as much good as a stack of hundred dollar bills in a starving dog’s mouth to know how an internal combustion engine works. You can stand at the side of the road and blather and bark all you want about how the engine is FINE, the car SHOULD be running, but that ain’t gonna patch the tire. If you don’t own the problem and look at it objectively and truthfully, you can’t fix the problem.

This is going to have to be my last word on New Year’s Resolutions, because I’m exhausted from getting upset over them. So many people making resolutions — and so many people five days into their resolutions (if they’ve made it even that far) — think the problem they’re fixing is external. My job sucks because I hate my boss, so I’ll get a new job. I eat horrible, artery-clogging food because it’s easier than cooking for myself, so I’ll order off the “diet” portion of the menu. I don’t work out because I don’t have time, so I’ll just download this seven-minute workout app and use that.

It doesn’t work like that. Your job sucks because you are not at home in yourself in it, but there are perfectly content telemarketers, gleeful garbage collectors, top-of-the-world door-to-door salesmen. You eat out because you don’t know how to cook, but the answer isn’t to order salads at McDonalds. Learn to cook for yourself and actually exercise some control over what goes into your body. You don’t work out because you haven’t made the time (let’s make that distinction: we all have the same 24 hours every day). An app on your phone is not the answer. Know what is? Cutting out some TV and exercising instead is.

And you know what’s in charge of ALL those decisions that get made? (Because, make no mistake, whether you exercise or not, you made a choice. Whether you grill some chicken or order a triple-extra-fatty-cheeseburger, you made a choice. Whether you stay in your crap job and learn to love it or drop a piano on your boss to escape his corporate lash, you MADE A CHOICE.) Your brain is in charge of those choices. You ARE your brain.

Deal with it.

Worse still, I just went and did some scratch-the-surface research (thanks Amazon) and found out the book is written by a pair of neuroscientists. SCIENTISTS. WROTE A BOOK CALLED “YOU ARE NOT YOUR BRAIN.”


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