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Rewiring Your Plastic Brain – Part 1: Eliminating Dangerous Behavior

July 10, 2012

You have gone most of your life without hearing about the Sea Gypsies. This nomadic group  of tribes lives on board boats off the coasts of Burma and Thailand. They are born on those boats and most of them die there. They make a living by diving down for shellfish and other aquatic animals that mainlanders pay them money to harvest. While living this way, they have developed two incredible skills.

First, their heartrates slow down so dramatically that they can survive dives of up to 6 minutes without oxygen. If most people went that long without breathing they would have brain damage. Second, they can see deep under water where dim, refracted light should make eyesight useless. And they can see this accurately without goggles.

How do they do this? Their brains have adapted to their environment and have changed how information from the eyes is processed. But what is more amazing is what researchers in the Netherlands have done with this information. Using willing test subjects, teens who are guided through a six-month regimen of reading underwater were able to double their effectiveness of underwater sight; almost to the point where they matched the Sea Gypsies.

Our brains can be changed if we want them to be changed. In the landmark book “The Brain that Changes Itself” there are literally hundreds of examples of this. But the author, Norman Doidge, M.D. admits that most people will never adapt their behavior (even the most dire addictive behavior) for one reason: They don’t want to.

I have worked with drug addicts, alcoholics, child offenders, the chronically depressed, those who repeat bad relationship habits, people with eating disorders, violent, etc. All of these came to me wanting to change their behavior. Almost all of them had been in some kind of psychological treatment before seeing me. Very few of them saw any changes in their most unhealthy habit.

My observation is that only those who really want to change will change. I know that sounds trite and obvious, but it is nonetheless true. But there are people who really want to change who don’t know how.

So, most people with addictive, destructive or sinful behavior don’t change because of two primary reasons: First, they don’t want to. Second, they don’t know how to.

Most counselors deal with the second problem and give their counselees great tools that may never work. Most pastors and spiritual directors deal with the first problem and give their disciples great motivation that often does not seem to result in lasting change. Let’s examine why.

Spanning this article and the next two, I want to take three behaviors that at first glance don’t seem to be that bad or dangerous. But each of these affects countless millions in our day. People can actually change all three of these behaviors if they have a combination of motivation and brain modification.

The first of these I call Dangerous Flirtation: I define a dangerous flirtation as this: Flirting with another person with the intent to physically or emotionally attract them when the consequences of this attraction may be dangerous in some way. This may include a married person seeking to attract the attention of a single person, a professional trying to attract a client, an adult attracting the attentions of a minor, or a healthy person flirting with an undesirable individual.

I believe unhealthy flirting may be epidemic in today’s culture. Social media has only brought this problem to a fever pitch: It has been there for decades. Though there may be a thousand reasons for dangerous flirting, I think the major factors boil down to three:

1. Inaccurate beliefs: We believe certain things about ourselves and about others that we then medicate through flirting. There may be hundreds of examples of this kind of inaccurate belief structure. Here are a few examples:

  • I have no value unless someone finds me attractive
  • I feel better when someone pays attention to me
  • I am a loser…and I feel less like a loser when I feel like someone counts me as special; even for a moment.
  • I need to know there are possible alternative relationships when my current love interest abandons or rejects me.

There are many more examples of this. As I tell people during counseling, this doesn’t mean you want sex with the people you flirt with. It means they are fulfilling an emotional need associated with a particular belief.

2. The Drug of Choice: If a person took a hit of cocaine to relieve their stress, we would say “that person is medicating their problem“. But we often don’t see it the same way when we flirt to deal with pain or fear. Dangerous flirtation, like any addictive behavior, is just a pain reliever.

3. Basic Need: As Maslow amply shows in his hierarchy of needs, we all desire and crave good relationships. Even without the false beliefs and easy relief of pain that flirting affords, we would still flirt occasionally just to show that we are in relationship with the rest of the world.

Is it any wonder that people do not see flirtations as dangerous as they can be;  or why they will not stop doing it even when shown what damage they can cause?  I have helped pick up the pieces when  doctors, teachers, CEOs, pastors, counselors, dentists had their professional licenses revoked as a result of inappropriate behaviors that came out of dangerous flirtations. I have consoled people who have broken marriages, broken bones, trails of tears, sexually transmitted diseases, drug addiction, loss of friends – all because of dangerous flirtations.

How can we change this type of behavior? It is not easy as evidenced by the lengths people will go to flirt when it could cost them their jobs and even their lives. I have found there are three well-defined steps to rewiring such bad brain behavior.

1. Realize you cannot do this on your own. I think the solution must involve a combination of the following:

  • God – We must have input from Someone who understands our lies and inaccuracies
  • Counselor or Guide: Someone skilled to help us make changes. If we had an eating problem, we would go to a nutritionist; if a weight problem, to an exercise specialist. And emotional problems are much more complex.
  • A friend who will help us be accountable for our actions and attitudes.

2. Explore the belief system behind the flirtation. The best way to do this is to chart the events that lead up to the desire to emotionally connect in a dangerous way. You will begin to see patterns that lead to bad behavior (see the last article and the expanded translation of Romans 12:2). Once you have eliminated the lies that are fueling the behavior, the crucial step of rewiring needs to start.

3. Rewire Your Brain with New Behavior: I worked with a professional one time who had a constant habit of flirting with clients. We got down to the source belief: I am undesirable and need to prove my desirability to feel confident. God helped this person to realize they weren’t undesirable. This person accepted that new belief system. But there still were times when people would reject them and send them into the first stages of feeling like an outsider.

From a brain-side view, there was a neural pathway associated with this feeling of loneliness and isolation. They had always treated it with a shot of flirtation. Among these addictive flirtations were some of the dangerous sorts. But once a person begins to use flirtations as a way to feel better, there is less ability to differentiate which ones are safe and which ones are not. Therefore, in order to rewire the brain, one must see that the neurotransmitter, Dopamine, is critical to the change path.

Dopamine is produced to reward behavior. It is the chemical our brain uses to reinforce doing something desirable. The brain ties a belief (frontal lobes) with a behavior (half a dozen other areas of the brain) and cements it together with Dopamine. Unfortunately, many things produce Dopamine, including drugs like Meth and Cocaine.

What we need to do when getting rid of dangerous flirtations is to recognize the pathway to that behavior. It often starts with a bad experience or the fear of one. Then we feel anxious, angry or hopeless to overcome this experience. Then we resort to flirtations. But once we have dealt with the false beliefs, we still have not changed the Dopamine reactive state. We do this by replacing the flirtations with another behavior and keep doing it until we no longer automatically flirt.

Here are a few behaviors that help to rewire the brain:

  • Meditation and Prayer
  • Journaling and reflection on how one feels
  • Strenuous exercise (great for producing Dopamine)
  • Spending time with healthy friends. It helps if you choose locations you really enjoy.
  • Good food (not lots of it…you don’t want to develop a replacement food addiction)
  • Creative work: music, art, writing, drama, painting, scrapbooking, knitting, martial arts are all excellent ways to feed the Dopamine receptors when recovering from addictive emotional patterns.

Next time we will look at Controlling Actions and Depression and Anxiety and chart how we can revamp our brains to change these debilitating conditions.

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One comment

  1. Powerful and compelling. Great writing and insights.



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