So here’s an interesting story about the work of Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D., a psychiatrist who studies neuroplasticity and mindfulness, and who specializes in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with cognitive-behavioral techniques. Schwartz was apparently a consultant to Leonardo DiCaprio when Leo was studying to play Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film, The Aviator. Hughes was notoriously debilitated by severe OCD, which eventually rendered him a recluse in later life. And to play the part, DiCaprio made the choice to “let his own mild OCD get worse,” Schwartz has said.
By playing Hughes and giving into his own compulsions, Leo induced a more severe form of OCD in himself. There is strong experimental evidence this kind of switch can happen to actors who concentrate so hard on playing OCD sufferers.
It apparently took DiCaprio three or four months to recover from his self-induced OCD.
When actors play a role, Schwartz has said, they can alter the functioning of their brain-chemistry—it’s been documented in the lab. Schwartz has taken that idea and turned it on its head: if people can successfully choose to induce illness in themselves, then people should also be able to induce healing.
Which is really good news for addicts. Because we adopted a bunch of behaviors and choices that led us into our illness; and it would seem Schwartz is saying we can get back out the same way we came—by making a bunch of different choices.
Schwartz’s new book, written with his colleague, Rebecca Gladding, M.D., is You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits. It’s a kind of sequel to Brain Lock, his popular manual for controlling OCD. In You Are Not Your Brain he aims to show how people with any kind of debilitating compulsion or habit can change their neurochemistry by changing their actions and thoughts—thoughts being a kind of action, according to the practices of mindfulness which Schwartz espouses.
I LOVE the idea of neuroplasticity—which is essentially says the body’s neurology is not set in stone. When I was a kid, I was taught that we were born with a certain number of brain cells, and that if they somehow got damaged or broken, we’d be shit-out-of-luck—those cells would never grow back, and those electrical connections would be forever severed. Scientists like Schwartz are proving that, in fact, the human neurological system is smarter and more resilient than we thought it was, and that it can not only carve out new pathways but that we exert a certain amount of control over our own neurology through the “force of will” or, as I prefer to understand it, through “mind.”
Schwartz makes the critical distinction that “mind” and “brain” are not one and the same:
The brain receives inputs and generates the passive side of experience, whereas the mind is active, focusing attention, and making decisions. … In other words, the brain does not incorporate your true self or Wise Advocate into its processes, but merely reacts to its environment in habitual, automatic ways.
Schwartz introduces the idea of the “Wise Advocate” (another way of thinking of higher power) very early in the book. He talks about “sculpting” the brain you want to have by using your will, but it becomes clear that in practice he advocates tapping into the wisdom of a power greater (wiser, smarter, more dependable, less selfish, however you want to say it) than self-will. So following his program becomes a process more of self-discovery than self-creation. I guess the latter would be more selfish and self-serving, unless healing and service are the primary motivations.
I’m a relative newcomer to sobriety, but I’ve experienced recovery as a process of finding out who I really am after a lifetime (or half a lifetime) of spending much of my time and energy pretending to be someone in order to make other people happy, which never worked anyway. Schwartz writes,
Deceptive brain messages get stronger the more you ignore, deny, and neglect your true self.
This is just another way of saying that the more I persist in insane behavior (which does not always have to include drinking, using drugs, gambling, overeating, or starving ourselves—it can include, for example, compulsively taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, otherwise known as “people-pleasing”), the more I lose any chance of finding out who I really am—and the more disconnected from my higher power I become. The more I foster spiritual weakness. The sicker I remain.
Schwartz and Gladding say recovery is all about taking “contrary action,” including changing our thoughts about ourselves. It’s not rocket-science, and it seems to me that, having been in and out of therapy since my mid-20s, I’ve heard his four steps before (Relabel, Reframe, Refocus, and Revalue). Which is just to say that his book offers commonsensical and reliable stuff. It’s also to say that it harmonizes with the ways I’ve seen countless people recover from addictions just as debilitating as Howard Hughes’s OCD, perhaps more so. We take action—“contrary action,” as they say in the rooms. Action that counters what we’d feeeel like doing, but that we believe (based upon the experience of trusted others) will benefit us.
Schwartz’s practices also rely a great deal on mindfulness, which is arrived at through meditation (Step 11). I’m all for any practice that gets me to live more inside the present moment. My experience is, meditation is a tool to counter any kind of obsession, addictive or otherwise. Studies also show that meditation and prayer, if practiced diligently and long enough, can PERMANENTLY decrease fear and sadness, and make us smarter and more compassionate. The practice of it has radically changed my own life, and I hope to run some more posts and maybe even some video about how to meditate.