The Plastic Mind

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. The book’s main argument is that our minds actually change in terms of function when they use a particular technology or idea repeatedly.

For example, when writing was introduced, one can see from the writings of Plato how the process of human thinking changed from an oral society to a written society. Later, the printing press revolutionized thinking once again, and it’s repeating more and more frequently with radio and television and the telegraph and so on. The internet is obviously in line with these types of changes.

The book argues that our brains are actually very “plastic,” meaning that the cells within actually change their structure when they’re used heavily (or not used heavily). For example, people who read quite a lot have physical differences in their brain than people who avoid reading – and that phenomenon is true for lots of things that people choose to do.

This brings us back around to personal finance – or, for that matter, any behavior you want to encourage within yourself.

Several years ago, I had a pattern wired into my head where I had myself convinced that going to a store and buying something was a normal and positive pattern. I derived quite a bit of joy from that experience and, frankly, the idea of not doing it seemed rather miserable. My brain was wired to think that buying unnecessary stuff was normal and what I should be doing.

When I finally had my financial meltdown, I basically resolved to stop spending money uselessly. It took a ton of willpower and a lot of little mental tricks, but I largely stopped buying unnecessary stuff.

Right now, as I sit here writing this, I have no desire at all to go to a store and buy something. There are quite a few books I could list that I actually want (something I’m going to write about later today), but when it comes right down to it, I’m not tempted at all to go into a store and actually buy those items.

My normal reaction to desiring a book used to be that I would simply go buy that book. Today, the idea of buying that book on the spur of the moment seems nonsensical to me.

In short, my brain works differently than it used to, at least in terms of buying unnecessary things. I enjoy them once in a while as a splurge, but as a routine like it once was? It just doesn’t seem appealing at all.

For a long time, this change was hard for me to explain to others. I would attribute it to things like willpower and focus, but, honestly, it really doesn’t take any willpower or focus for me to not do these things today. It took a ton at the start, but right now, the idea of going to a bookstore and walking out with four books does not fill me with positive feelings.

Now, I understand the change. It’s the plastic mind at work. My mind actually works differently than it used to.

I guess the question many people would ask is how I got from here to there.

At first, there was a ton of willpower involved. I simply willed myself not to go to places where I would be tempted to spend money. This stripped away that positive “rush” of feelings I would get when I would buy a book. I consciously shifted to using the library for my book purchases.

At the same time, I tried very hard to reflect on the negative aspects of those purchases. When I’d think about going to a bookstore, I would reflect on the money that was slipping out of my hands in that exchange as well as all of the other things I could be doing with that money. I’d think about my estimates for how much I spent on books in 2005 (let’s just say it was well into the four figures). Eventually, I began to associate this type of unnecessary purchase with the sense of it being a big mistake.

Once I crossed that threshold where I began to feel that unplanned book purchases were a mistake, it began to take much less willpower to avoid doing it.

It was almost as if a switch had flipped in my mind.

The things you choose to do each day train your brain to consider them to be normal. In the same vein, when you think positively about something, your mind is going to associate positive feelings with it later on, and the same is true about negative thoughts and feelings.

Combine the two together and you can bring about profound changes in your life.

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