Juan David Campolargo

Writing to Rewire Your Brain

Nester, a senior in high school, knows he loves to paint and is thinking of majoring in art. He’s been painting for 14 years and has been featured in over 20+ newspapers. Moreover, he has more than 1 million followers across the internet. 

He isn’t super interested in college but his parents will make him go. His parents want him to study architecture because the richest family in the neighborhood are architects. 

Nester knows architecture is a good field, and he knows will probably make a lot of money. But he wants his work to be his life, and he could never see himself as an architect. 

Nester’s parents suggested writing about this big decision. So Nester went and wrote about it. While he was writing, he thought of his parents, the rich neighbors, and his friends. 

He realized architecture made sense because: 

1) everyone said it was a good field (and everyone can’t be wrong), 

2) you can have a comfortable living, 

3) even though he loves to paint, it’s time to grow up and do something grown-ups do.

What did Nester do? He studied architecture.

But wait wait, what if Nester hadn’t written about it? What if Nester had written with a different question in mind, like why he should do art? 

Would Nester have been convinced of studying architecture? Would he have changed?

This essay will be about how writing can change you and rewire your brain.


What if you could change yourself when you put words together? When you write, you write not only (or type) on the paper (or screen) but also in your brain. 

You can write to get clarity. You can write to find or bury the truth, eventually changing yourself. You can lie to yourself about your career, your relationships, and anything. 

The easiest person to lie to is yourself, even if we don’t try to. The moment you lie to yourself, you lose the ability to distinguish the truth within yourself.

Writing gives you a unique ability to get closer to the truth or a quicker way to bluff yourself.

During my senior of high school, quarantine happened. In a few months, I’d be going off to college, but what the hell was I going to study? 

This is when I realized the flawlessness of writing to make decisions.

I wanted to study engineering. Yet, I got accepted as undeclared. Transferring to engineering required a disciplined dedication to get a high GPA. This forced me to question if I wanted to study engineering. 

College requires independent thinking to know where to go and what to study. So I wrote essays [1] about my college thought process, the type of work I wanted to do, and the problems I wanted to solve. 

I was careful. I would not write them in the same place where I would write my other essays where I knew I’d be sharing them with the world. I’d write in a place where I keep personal thoughts because I didn’t want them to affect how I was thinking about myself. 

I only wanted to have one mirror to look at that, and that mirror was me. 

I write for myself, and no one else. I don’t think whether it’ll be helpful or useful. I think about whether I’m being true to myself and whether I’m writing in my original voice. 

At first, I would not publish these essays online but then I realized it could be a handy framework for others [2]

Mirrors of Writing

When you write online, there are many mirrors depending on who you think as you write. You may think about people who will read your writing, such as your mom, your high school friend, or your employer.

You have many mirrors you’re looking yourself at, and you are putting your words in front of those mirrors. You don’t want to offend anyone so you give a test to the ideas. When you finish writing, it’s anything but you. It ends up being some generic bullshit. It becomes what you think people expected you to write, not what you wanted to write.  

But people tell you that to be successful, you can’t be too straight and that one needs to learn to be diplomatic. Others say you need to have "Emotional Intelligence" to be fake with yourself and others. 

When you’re writing about yourself and how you think about yourself, you only want to think about yourself. Here’s the scary part: Not only did you write some stupid bullshit you wouldn’t have written otherwise. When you finished writing, that generic piece of gibberish becomes part of you.

Welcome to a part of your brain therapists don’t want you to know about!

I try not to share personal reflections with anyone because I don’t want to change what I’m thinking. But, a dear friend was sharing personal reflections, and it might affect her decisions so I asked:

“Do you think having people like your family or whoever else impact what you write and how you write? How different would this writing look if it was only for you, and only for your eyes only?”

This friend replies by saying, “More brutally honest and maybe a little vulgar. While I write, I imagine I’m just writing to myself and for myself, and by the end, if some things need to be changed or adjusted so other people can read it, I change those things.”

I write similar essays but once I remember the mirrors, I’d start behaving (or writing) differently. I could say that would not affect me, but subconsciously it does. The sociologist Cooley said once said, “I’m not who I think I am. I’m not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am”.

Why does this matter? I worried about how when we write things we rewrite what we think. It’s almost like rewriting our thoughts on what might be convenient to think or believe. 

Psychologists/therapists are “helpful” is because they ask you questions to make you rewrite past events/memories in your own way until you believe it to be true, and then it’s changed. They changed your mind! 

But how do you change people’s minds?

Changing People’s Minds

If you want to change people’s minds, understand the brain’s most important and special feature.

Taking past memories and events to get patterns to understand the present to predict the future. 

Let’s say when you wore your old, stinky purple socks when you had a math test. 

Two days later, you got an A+. Right away, your brain will tell you, “Purple socks are your lucky charm.” Our brains can’t resist coming up with all kinds of patterns but also find meaning to them. Our brains are embarrassedly good at this because even if you got an F on the next test, you’d say, “Well, it doesn’t always work. It works 9 out 10 times.” 

It’s guaranteed your brain will make sense of it. This is why mysticism is so popular because it’s ridiculously easy for the brain to come up with patterns. A frequent example is when you call a friend, and your friend says, “Oh my God, I was just thinking about you.” Your brain will start making up a story about why your friend was thinking about you. If you wanted to slow down the craziness of your brain, you’d ask, “How often do you think about me when I don’t call?” 

People will always come up with patterns because that’s what the brain is always doing, predicting future patterns. For instance, every time I jump up, I come down, or when I punch the table, there’s a sound. We create a cause-and-effect relationship for everything. Our brains do this since we are babies.

We can also talk about how memory works, and this is where it gets scary. This is also why I don’t share personal reflection writing with others. Or, why I don’t share happy birthdays or anniversary posts on social media.

In a simplified way, memory works in the following way:

Memory isn’t a hard drive. It’s not a place where you save events forever where you can load the file and see (or remember) the information. 

Memory works like this: an event happens, you load it, store it, and save it on the hard drive. But the first time you load it, you extract it from the hard drive. In the meantime, you put it in a different place, and when you’re done using it, you resave it in the hard drive, overwriting the original. Every time you use the memory, you open it, and then you write on top of the previous one. 

Memory, as the great feature of the brain, is made to stay intact. However, we can update memories all the time with new information that changes them. 

Let’s say you had a girlfriend you loved and you were happy together. You guys have been together for two years, and everything was working out. But one day, she breaks up with you out of nowhere. 

You’re destroyed because you didn’t see it coming. Everything seems great and then she breaks up with you. Your life shattered like a glass cup falling to the ground. You’re so heartbroken that you can’t function because you have an awful depression. Your friend Hudson suggests you see a therapist because you clearly need help. 

You somehow found the will to go to the therapist with Hudson’s help. What therapists would normally do is they would ask you to tell the story about what happened. You tell your therapist Serenity, the story of where you guys met, how happy you guys were, and when she broke up with you.

Why do therapists like Serenity do this? They ask you to load the memory, take it out of the hard drive, and put it in this other space where it’s vulnerable. If Serenity is a good therapist, she wouldn’t say tell me the story, and you’re done. Serenity would intervene. She'd say when you told the story, you said she loved you but it seemed like she told you before she would break up with you.

By doing this, therapists can reframe it and change a bit of the story. Later, you guys end the meeting, and you save the new version of memory on top of the old one. So, you no longer have the previous version, what you have is a new version with “updates.” 

When you come to the therapist again, Serenity asks you to tell the story about your girlfriend. You load the changed version into the memory, and you tell her again but when you tell her, you suddenly say, “You said there were signs but I don’t think the signs were there.”

But the therapist would quickly continue changing. Every time, they change a bit of the plasticity and resave. If Serenity is a good therapist, she'll help you see the missed angles and write them on top of the original. That way, by the sixth meeting, you’ll have a different version of the same story.

You will remember the fact you broke up, but it's no longer as painful. The therapist broke the connection between the story and the bad feelings. How? By creating new connections to being good and being more complicated. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what good therapy is. 

If you don’t want to change your memories, use them as least as possible. But use them as many times as possible if you want to change your memories.

Let’s say you remember an event from the past when you were a baby. The more you tell stories about that, the more you will change it. It will become less accurate over time. For example, you tell your friends the story, and they’re making fun of it because they think it’s stupid. You will take the “stupidity” and put it in the memory. When you tell the story to someone else in a month, you will have residues that leaked from the last experience.

If you care about not changing your memories, use them very infrequently. But if you want to change memories, use them all the time. Memories get changed all the time a bit based on the experience. 

“The best memories are kept in people with Alzheimer's because they never use them.” If you didn’t get it, it’s because this is a cynical joke among neuroscientists. It’s the best memory because it’s fresh and will always be the original version because they cannot get to them. They are sitting there. It’s a relevant joke to know, but it’s pretty cynical because you want to access your memories, and not just know that they’re “safe.”

“Why Do I Want the Answer to be Different?”

There are some things I want to change but not others, such as my intuition.

I also don’t want to change what I originally thought. The original thoughts are gold. That’s my intuition, which is like a quiet voice that never shouts but whispers as Steven Spielberg said.

I want to understand the assumptions that made me get that “intuition” and listen to my quiet voice. Other times, I want to change my first impressions, and that’s why writing forces me to get closer to the clear truth. 

But when you’re writing or talking where you have mirrors, that’s the end of yourself. You’ll act how you think they think they want you to act.

The beginning of yourself starts when you think for and about yourself first. When you think about the areas where you can and want to do your work in your own original way. 

Writing helps you develop the confidence to hear your intuition. But if you aren’t careful, you can end up like Nester who convinced himself to study something he didn’t want.

But this isn’t as hard as we make it seem. We always know we’re doing the “wrong” thing, the truest part of us knows. So why do we pretend it’s hard? We might not like the “right” thing so we provide justifications to kind of convince ourselves. 

Then, we write to justify to ourselves our actions and emotions. In reality, you knew what you wanted to do or feel before you started writing. 

Next time, you’re writing about a big decision or a feeling. Remember that inside the truest part of you, you already know and have the answer. Instead, ask yourself: Why do I want the answer to be other than what I already to be true or right?

That way, you don’t write to rewrite your brain. You write to understand why you want to fool yourself and avoid the rewrite before it happens. 




[1] These are two of the college essays:

[2] See the contradiction here? It’s on purpose. When I write personal reflection essays, I’m only thinking about myself. Then, once it’s done. Sure, I share them. 

But the essay’s goal was to do the best original work I could do, not necessarily to be helpful to others. Paradoxically, the more “selfish” you try to be, the more helpful it becomes. Why? If you find it interesting and helpful, others will. Instead of guessing what others might like. 

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Tags: neurosciencewriting