Mental health: training our brain

We can train our ‘animal’ brain, like a dog, with physical and emotional rewards. Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

We all do it.  Frustrated with our lack of progress, we make a dramatic commitment to a new way of life.  We do it with diets.  We do it with fitness.  And we do it with relationships.

Often, though, the future doesn’t go the way we expect.  The diet fails; the fitness focus dwindles; the relationship falls into its old ways.  Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

Part of the answer lies in the way our brains have evolved.  Roughly speaking, we have two brains.  One is ancient, and behaves in a reactive, very automatic fashion.  The other evolved more recently, and has a more thinking, controlled approach.

These two brains don’t talk to each other very well.  That’s why we can make a conscious decision one minute, and the next minute do something that completely contradicts it.  Our ‘new’ brain makes the resolutions, and then our ‘old’ brain ignores the resolution, and does what it wants to anyway.

If we want to behave consistently, we need to improve the way our new brain talks to the old one.  I call it ‘dog training’, because it is like training an animal.  In fact, that it exactly what we are doing.

How do you train a dog?  By tapping into its natural tendency to seek reward from two sources: physical reward (i.e. food), and emotional reward (i.e. the owner’s approval).  In the same way we can train our animal selves, firstly with physical rewards, and secondly with emotional rewards.

The changes in behaviour, and the rewards that accompany them, have to be very small.  Diet, fitness and relationships respond well to micro-changes embedded into our daily lifestyle.  They do not respond well to dramatic declarations that do not relate to our natural ecosystem.

So, if we want our new intentions to succeed, then we need to focus on training our inner dog, using physical and emotional rewards, into new habits.  A dog trainer works slowly and incrementally, never going faster than the dog can cope with.  In the same way, we need to start with where we are, and begin to make small changes which stick.


As an experiment, we can choose one small change in diet, exercise or relationship habit.

  1. We can then decide what physical reward (equivalent to a treat) we will give ourselves every time we display that habit.
  2. We can also decide what emotional reward (equivalent to praise) we will give ourselves every time we display that habit.

Eventually, like a dog, we will start to display the habit without needing the reward.  We can then move on to the next small change we want to make.

Over time, this establishes a good training relationship between our new brain and our old brain.

Don’t forget – small changes in habits; physical rewards; emotional rewards.