Changing Brain Chemistry, Changing Paradigms

Illustration of brain being monitored by laptop

Science changes, just like everything else in life. First we understand things one way, then we begin to see where we were wrong and we begin to understand life a different way. According to Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science who wrote the influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), a paradigm is a theory, or worldview, that dominates a particular field of science at any given time. Paradigms influence which questions scientists ask and how they interpret their data. So, for example, back in the 1690’s, unexplained illnesses and difficulties were widely believed to be the result of witchcraft and many were put to death because they were unable to prove their innocence. Similarly, in the ancient world, diseases were often thought to be caused by miasma or “bad air.” A paradigm will hold sway until enough anomalous or disconfirming data accumulates to cause the scientific community to question the exiting zeitgeist and eventually change it out for a new way of understanding. The paradigm of miasma went unquestioned until a sufficient amount of evidence accumulated to cause it to be discarded in favor of the modern germ theory, the notion that many diseases are caused by microscopic organisms or pathogens. And in every generation, people believe they understand completely, that they have got hold of absolute truth. We think that now, don’t we? But I wonder what changes to this paradigm might be evident 100 or 1000 years from now? It is humbling to remember that the ancients felt every bit as confident of their paradigms as we do of ours. Yet even our own paradigms are shifting and changing. The institute of medicine estimates that it takes about 15 years, even in today’s internet age where information can be disseminated globally in a nanosecond, for new scientific discoveries to inform clinical practice. Thus, the gap between science and practice persists.

For several decades now, the field of mental health has been dominated by a dichotomous paradigm—a binary worldview where “mental” experiences and emotions are considered different than “physical” problems and experiences. In this view, the brain is likened to a motherboard and biochemistry is like the circuits that communicate between motherboard and software. But data is accumulating that contradicts this worldview and strains our use of the computer metaphor. New research shows, for example, that unlike motherboard and software, the physical structure of the brain actually changes in response to changes in thought and behavior. Habits of thought are behaviors, and our habits of thought make a very big difference in how we experience life. Science is just beginning to document that, in fact, changing habits of thought—such as with psychotherapy or mindfulness training, for example—actually changes the physical structure and chemistry of the brain. Currently, there is no software that I am aware of that is capable of changing the physical structure of the motherboard by changing the data that is input.

We are beginning to emerge from a dark age when the dominant paradigm explained everything, from difficulty paying attention to emotional pain, as a medical disease necessitating pharmaceutical intervention. There is a certain comfort in this paradigm. If difficult emotions and behaviors are “diseases” then perhaps blame is not an issue. But what if we moved away from a culture of blame toward a culture of acceptance and non-judgmental problem-solving instead? Then perhaps we could take responsibility for changing our brains without needing to blame anyone. There could be comfort in knowing that by beginning the long slow work of changing my habits of thought, and my habits of relating, I could change how I experience life.  There could be hope in knowing that the skills for regulating emotional experience, the skills for getting more pleasure from life and from relationships, could be learned. For those who don’t like to learn, or those who find the long slow slope of learning curves frustrating, this new paradigm might not be such good news. And for them there is always a pill. But for those who are willing to embrace the frustrations of learning new habits with patience, then this new paradigm is full of hope and optimism—and the future is full of opportunity.

Related Articles:

Help! My Brain is Betraying Me!: Intrusive Thoughts in Motherhood
Can Therapy Affect the Brain?

© Copyright 2011 by Sara Rosenquist, PhD, ABPP, therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • asa


    December 8th, 2011 at 1:31 PM

    As we grow, as a person and as a society, paradigms and norms are bound to change. That is the normal way that things evolve and lead us to a greater understanding of who we are and what we believe.

    The same thing holds true with science as a whole. Ideas are not meant to remain stagnant and unchamging. They are meant to change with time and to become more educated as we go along the spectrum.

  • Chuck Hancock

    Chuck Hancock

    December 8th, 2011 at 3:46 PM

    Really excited to see your article Sara. Indeed, it does take a change in paradigms to start to embrace and utilize the things that science is starting to point to today. I practice mindfulness based somatic psychotherapy (Hakomi) which fully helps people see their “wiring” and start to create new “wiring” to help people as you state, begin the work of changing habits of thought, habits of relating, and change how life is experienced.

    But it takes education and a change in paradigm to show the value and worth of the work. Why do this work when you could just pop a pill? I hope we will start to see more research on the longevity and permanence of change done through this work versus pharmaceuticals alone to help people start to see the value of actually changing their patterning rather than masking it.

  • Coleman Peters

    Coleman Peters

    December 9th, 2011 at 4:44 AM

    This is pretty interesting stuff here. You don’t ever think about your brain chemistry changing, just the overall fact that your way of thinking could change over time. Pretty amazing the brain and the body make to accomodate those ever changing ideas. Even more amazing that people still don’t believe in the possibility of evolution when it is so easily documanted just how much we do change and modify over time.

  • Alex.V


    December 9th, 2011 at 11:48 PM

    Its never easy for us as a society to accept change easily.So when newer things are found it does take time for the ripple effect to reach practice.And from there it takes even longer for all to know and understand and accept.

    And the human brain,as various studies have proven,is one amazing thing.There is no computer as powerful as it is and there is no computer that can be misused as it can be either!

  • Juliano


    December 14th, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    “Then perhaps we could take responsibility for changing our brains without needing to blame anyone.”
    I am sorry but, even though I feel you are getting it be understanding the duality of western science between body and mind, and the defunct computer model which has us as supposed biochemical machines with no free will. Yes, all that is very toxic and harmful stories being told us which we then tell our selves . But then you dont seem to understand that all the previous paradigms including the current mental health movement model BLAMES…it BLAMES the individual! And yet here you are encouraging the continuation of that blame–no doubt because of the influence (I sense) of Eastern belief systems which Also blame the individual—ie., you MUST meditate, and stop thinking, and control emotions.
    But what about the prevailing culture–it ALWAYS gets away with it doesn’t it? Feel me? Ie., it allows it to keep levels of hierarchy where those with the dosh can pretend to take the ‘blame’ as they have their expensive therapies whilst the ‘poor’ REALLY get the blame for even being ‘poor’ and so on.
    The only western model I have heard which recognizes this unmentioned scam–which I read only recently (and ironically featured by the same blogger who featured your article, but doesn’t mention this. Think she’s into Buddhism) is called Liberation Psychology, and this apparently DOES take very much into account the system one finds oneself in as a big cause of distress. So wise up.

  • Tom


    October 24th, 2012 at 7:02 AM

    Juliano, you seem to be trapped in your own BLAME matrix as well. And a condemnation one as well. “Wise up”? Kinda arrogant, don’t you think?

    The fact of the matter is we are all placed, blind and ignorant, into this living, interactive system called life. Our job is to navigate through it, interacting with it as best we can while maintaining our own living systems. To “blame” the system itself or others we interact with, equally blind and ignorant as we, simply because their blind efforts to navigate the system conflict with our own blind efforts to navigate the system is truly counter-productive. The answer is not blame, but adaptation and/or imposing modifications on the system.

    If a branch breaks as I walk under a tree, I do not “blame” the branch. It did not “intend” me harm. And if my wife “hurts” me because she misunderstands me I do not “blame” her. I always look to her intent, as I hope she looks to mine. Good will is what I pray for. It will NOT make the world perfect, but it will make it better.

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