The Brain: A Work in Progress

Posted on August 15, 2017 by Robert Ringer


Cognitive science is the study of the brain mechanisms responsible for an individual’s thoughts, moods, decisions, and actions.  Cognition refers to everything that takes place in an individual’s brain that helps him understand the world around him.  To accomplish such an understanding involves mental processes such as concentration, memory, conceptualization, creativity, and emotions.

In his book The New Brain, Dr. Richard Restak uses the term “plasticity of the new brain” to refer to the capacity of the brain to transform itself.  This is an incredibly exciting notion, and one that has endless positive ramifications.

Until recently, it was generally believed that the brain’s plasticity peaked out at young adulthood, if not earlier.  However, researchers now believe that the brain is subject to transformation throughout life, which is why Restak appropriately refers to it as a “lifetime work in progress.”

Now that I’ve become a born-again behavioral modificationist, this makes perfect sense to me.  When I was a Freudian laymanologist, I assumed that genetics and childhood experiences set everything in stone.  It wasn’t until the headmaster at my son’s school told me that he had based his entire career on his belief in behavioral modification that I allowed myself to consider its merits.

That, in turn, led to my reading Reality Therapy, a work by Dr. William Glasser.  The essence of Dr. Glasser’s book is that no matter what happened to you in your childhood, no amount of rehashing the past can ever change it.  On the other hand, by focusing on being a responsible adult today, you can change the way you feel about yourself, and about life, in the present.

Thus, whether you want to learn a foreign language, how to play tennis, or the techniques for writing good ad copy, you first have to make changes in your brain.  And the key to making such changes is repetition, which I have written about many times in the past.

Repetition makes repeated impressions on your brain, but there’s a catch:  If the repetitions are wrong (e.g., swinging a golf club incorrectly), you are not going to excel at the skill you have targeted.  From whence comes the worn-out but true observation that only an insane person would continue to repeat the same thing over and over again and expect different results.

Which brings yet another question to the fore:  If you continue to get negative results, should you invoke persistence?  Or is it more sane just to give up and move on to something else?  The answer is that you definitely should be persistent, but based on what you have learned through experience you should try a different methodology.

Restak’s main point is that regardless of how much of one’s success is due to genetics and how much is due to practice, the level of success a person achieves is based on the plasticity of the brain.  My take on this can be summed up in what I like to refer to as the “C” Student/“A” Student Theory:  In a majority of cases, a student with “C” intelligence who is willing to put forth the required effort is capable of achieving “A” results.

I know this from firsthand experience, because I went from a 0.8 average in college to a 4.0 average after a stint in the army.  My military experience was so unpleasant that it made an indelible impression on my brain, which in turn caused me to become highly motivated to succeed academically.

In other words, my brain’s plasticity made it possible for me to transform my view of the world.  It was a cerebral transformation that made it possible for me to recognize that there is more to life than girls, booze, and playing poker.  Once I redirected my energy from such trivial pursuits to studying every waking moment that I wasn’t in class, I was able to achieve A’s in such difficult subjects as physics and organic chemistry.

The plasticity of the brain is why you can accomplish great things without being born with superior intelligence or an abundance of natural talent.  Dr. Restak maintains that a transformation of the brain can be achieved by sheer determination.

Fair enough, but that begs the question:  What if your brain isn’t wired to be determined?  That’s where one’s experiences and environment come into play.  For example, notwithstanding imbecilic arguments to the contrary, what you see and hear around you (such as in movies and on television) has a huge impact on how and what you think about all day long.  When people — and children, in particular — see violence, “alternative lifestyles,” and explicit sex on the screen, or hear it by listening to rap-crap, the power of suggestion is planted with each repetition.

So-called intelligence is plastic because scientific research has shown that experiences cause neuronal circuits to form and become more dense.  Therefore, no matter what your age, the more you exercise your brain, the higher the density of the neurons in your frontal cortex –– which makes you more “intelligent.”  (“General intelligence” is believed to be directly related to the amount of gray matter in the frontal lobes of the brain.)

You and I have heard this repeatedly phrased in laymen’s terms as “Use it or lose it.”  The less I write, the more difficult I find writing to be.  The more I write, the more easily the words fly off my keyboard.

Which is why every writer should recognize that the most important aspect of writing is to sit down to a computer and actually start writing.  The substance of this philosophy is true whatever your profession may be.

The corollary to the “C” Student/“A” Student Theory might well be stated as:  In a majority of cases, a student with “A” intelligence who is unwilling to put forth a reasonable amount of time and effort is likely to achieve “C” results.  To me, then, intelligence has more to do with how close you come to performing at your maximum capacity than your IQ.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that native intelligence is not nearly as important as such traits as social skills, the ability to persuade, and the willingness to take action.  Our universities are overflowing with top-heavy frontal-cortex types who would surely be lost in the real world (i.e., the world beyond the ivy-covered gates guarding a weird mixture of academic pinheads and illiterate semi-pro athletes).

There’s no question that whoever came up with the term “personal best” definitely was on to something.  It’s not what you have, but what you do with what you have.  No matter how old you are, no matter what your financial situation, and no matter how many bad experiences you may have had in your past, it’s never too late to become “smarter.”

You would do well to consciously and continuously make it a point to push your plastic brain to the limit — and beyond — until the day you breathe your last breath.  The human brain is the most powerful collection of atoms on earth, but it requires constant exercise.

But what if you’re not motivated to exercise your brain?  Fortunately, you possess a trait known as “free will,” which, in conjunction with the brain, comprises the most powerful force in the entire universe.  By accessing your free will, you have the ability to take action regardless of whether or not you’re motivated.

Taking action will get those atoms in your plastic brain vibrating at ever-higher rates of speed, which in turn will stir up your motivation.  Nothing mystical about it.  It simply works.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

27 responses to “The Brain: A Work in Progress”

  1. Mic says:

    Absolutely incredible article! This is one of the best I have read. I got a ton out of it and plan on giving copies to some people that came to mind as I was reading this.

    It is funny in that I do a reading of a "wealth statement" every morning and evening. I have done this for years, but there are times when my schedule gets out of whack and I don't do this for a stretch. I notice a difference when I stop and when I am doing it. When I am doing it I am more driven overall, more focused and seem to get better results with my day. It goes right to your point of repetition and feeding your mind the things it needs to help you succeed.

    • Jim Hallett says:

      Another benefit of repetition of affirmations or other positive words/thoughts is that when one is distracted with other things, these words/thoughts keep showing up as they have been somewhat implanted on the subconscious mind, and they can go a long way in keeping our spirits up, giving us the necessary oomph to persevere in a difficult or unpleasant situation, and to more likely expound positive and uplifting comments to others, rather then regurgitate the kind of negativity that pervades the culture and which is magnified by the media. I have a slew of affirmations, positive statements that I use frequently throughout each day, and I feel more positive and energetic as a result.

  2. Joan says:

    Once again you've done it Robert–emailing this one to the kids and my Facebook page!

  3. Kauai Mike says:

    Awhile ago, governments & global corporations realized the value of keeping our brains just where they wanted them. Big Brother has plans for your brain.

  4. David Gilbert says:

    At the risk of being accused of making a "religious statement," I submit that you have discovered and expounded upon a principle that is thousands of years old and was presented in the inspired writings of both the New Testament and the Old Testament. The writer of the Letter to the Romans stated in Chapter 12:1,2 – "…be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind." This is the exact principle your essay is presenting. The mind is "plastic and renewable" and leads to modified behavior! While stated in a spiritual and religious context, this is a general principle and can result in both positive or negative behavioral modification, depending on the agent or influence that "renewed" the mind – such as drugs or alcohol leading to a negative transformation!

    The writer of the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament gives the basis of behavioral modification in both principles and metaphors throughout the first few chapters from at least Chapter 1 through Chapter 8 where it is stated to seek Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. As one becomes motivated to seek these educational qualities and concepts, the promises and rewards of such positive 'behavioral modification' are presented in a broad range of positive achievements and life-enhancing by-products and results!

    Next, couple this basic knowledge with what we are learning about the power of algorithms and apply this principle to the "algorithmic nature" of the human brain, and one begins to learn and appreciate what our brains are capable of enabling us to achieve! Simply stated, algorithms process data and are built or constructed to achieve specific outcomes. Our brains are the most powerful data processors ever created, and if we can appreciate this powerful ability and gift, there is virtually no limit as to what can be learned and achieved!

    Human Babies are the prime example to study: A baby reared in a home with psychologically and mentally-stable parents begins hearing, seeing, and experiencing the multitudes of daily sensory inputs which eventually lead to the abilities of movement, speaking, forming sentences, expressing themselves, etc. When there is the absence of Fear, emotional turmoil, or other negative emotions, the baby makes rapid behavioral progress.

    If we as adults can learn and appreciate these principles, succeed in keeping negative emotions such as fear, greed, envy, or other mentally-crippling factors out of the mind; then let the mind function the way it was created to function, the true data processing and behavioral modification will produce fantastic powerful and positive results!

    • PeterMeb says:

      Excellent elucidation, excellent expatiation of these principles and key ideas. I'm running, in action steps, with these things. Much thanks, for expressing your own thoughts & presenting further clarification on them..

      • David Gilbert says:

        Thank you for your kind words and thoughts. These are exciting and important concepts for the conduct of the wonderful gift of "Life" we've been given. In today's technological age, our ability to avail ourselves of positive 'data input' has grown exponentially, and the prospect for greater, more powerful, and more positive modification is limited only by our own attitudes and motivations! Good luck with your study and application!

  5. Gare says:

    And don't over eat or drink to much alcohol… The bit was OK. Oh and exercise! Super genius. This is just interlude before something HUGE coming out of Roberts newly exercised brain. Let us have it.

  6. JJB says:

    Ha! – "And the key to making such changes is repetition, which I have written about many times in the past." – Brilliant!

  7. Richard Lee Van Der says:

    Actually the "Self", S elf, evolves over many incarnations of life-times. One of many interesting subjects in ancient Indian (India) philosophy. Assuming the reality or reincarnation, and I do.
    RE Glasser: Years ago I read Glasser's REALITY THERAPY. So I set out to correct a friends super-nut=case son during a one week trip to Acapulco. Glasser wrote that the process will take TIME, and he was correct. The kid went into psychotic spin, and then ran away and traveled alone in Mexico perfectly on his own. I learned about one kind of psychotic in just a couple of weeks! And that Glasser didn't advise "instant therapy" using his techniques. Turned out that the mother was his facilitator right from the git go!

  8. Mike says:

    Great information and message. Thank you.

  9. Troy P says:

    This article is eye opening and David Gilbert's comments are right on. Take this and apply it to recovery (drugs

  10. Jon says:

    Dr Gary North has opined for decades that it takes about 10,000 hours to perfect a skill to the point where you really do become an expert.

    • Scott theczech says:

      I'll never forget what a golf professional who was helping me with my game said: "Practice doesn't make perfect…perfect practice makes perfect."

  11. larajf says:

    So many people have a brain and so few really learn to use it. Our education system kills creativity.

    • Jean says:

      It also seems that our education system kills genuine learning. Because today's educators refuse to allow a student to fail, that student never learns how to change direction or methodology in order to succeed. S/he does learn, however, that those who DO succeed are "unfair" or somehow "privileged."

      I had written once about watching a mother cat train her kittens to become adults, and how she would first set the example, then allow them to try and emulate her. She would cuff them every so often to keep their attention focused, and then stand back and watch them master a task. Educators (in government schools, at least), substitute self-esteem building mantras and exercises that make students feel good about failing and feel entitled to the same rewards as those who gain mastery early.

  12. Michael says:

    Great article!

    Two excellent books that are right down this alley are "So Good They Can't Ignore You" & "Deep Work" … both by Cal Newport.

  13. RealitySeeker says:

    There is no doubt that each individual should become a self-starter and "be all they can be". On the other hand, let's not delude ourselves into thinking that natural ability isn't a BIG factor in life. For example, an Aboriginal woman is quite unlikely to become a super model due to the fact that Mother Nature distributes certain genes to some races and not to others…. The ghastly reality is that those of us who are gifted —- e.g., high IQ and/or physical strength, speed, endurance, athleticism and/or talent, creativity, imagination and/or verbally gifted, charismatic, charming, enchanting, storyteller and/or insightful, human-nature reader, wise, photographic memory, people person and so on and so forth — and use whatever gifts we have, we start out WAY ahead in the race of life. But like the Rabbit & Hare all too often the swifter in mind and body doesn't win the physical or intellectual race because talented people tend to get sidetracked….

    So, in my opinion, the moral of the story is to honestly recognize whatever gifts we do have and then get our asses out there and do something with those gifts…. The sooner the better..

    Personally, I'm very grateful for the traits of my race and the gifts found in my genes which were pasted on to me, yet free will is a huge factor; and just as important is time and unforseen circumstance — be it good or bad fortune.. Luck plays a very big role in life, and sometimes people just find themselves in the right place at the right time…. It's happened to me, and I wish I could take all the credit for making my own luck, but I can't — not even close..

  14. Ivan says:

    What great ideas on taking care of our brains. We should be careful of what we expose our brains to. I try to avoid TV, gossip, negativity, procrastination and toxic people. Only the positive people, places and behaviors work out for me.

  15. DouglasD says:

    Several years ago, a young physical therapist who was treating me quoted a college coach who taught him the following principle: "Repetition penetrates the densest of minds."

    Whatever it takes!

  16. JOE says:

    Very important for older people who say "I'm too old to do ___" fill in the blank. I think it's important to NEVER EVER tell your self you're too old old for anything. I know there are exceptions to this, but unfortunately there are many people who as they get older use age as a cop out. DON'T EVER TELL YOUR SELF YOU'RE TOO OLD OLD for anything.

  17. Steve V. says:

    My 98-year-old mother still has all her marbles, likely due to still reading a book a week.

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