1.3.1: You are a brain surgeon

Pay attention

All behaviour change is brain change, and brain change is a discipline of where, and how, to pay attention

Before you pay anything else, pay attention. ‘There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains’, wrote psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and author Norman Doidge. You are losing this war. ‘If we stop exercising our mental skills,’ Doidge continues, ‘we do not just forget them: the brain map for space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.’[i] In other words, the common diet strategy of allowing yourself a minor transgression now in return for the promise of behaving better later is doomed, because the very act of transgression is a vote for a brain that’s going to be even more likely to want to misbehave later too.[1] It’s also a kick in the teeth for those that live their lives in resting-on-laurels mode, desperately wishing that anything, once ‘secured’ is set for life.

Whatever our excuses say, we are blocked from doing what we want to do – from becoming who we want to become – not by isolated incidents but by systematic errors. You grow out of systematic errors with systematic insights: new ways of seeing the world that solve lots of errors at once. A pertinent example of this in your relationship with money is the ability to look at the obviously silly behaviour of others (e.g. an extravagant wedding) and connect it to subtler things in your own life (e.g. Champagne-based showing off every Friday night) and realise they come from the exact same place. Amateur behavioural scientists love to describe systematic errors, ideally in an infographic. Yet as above, describing behaviour doesn’t explain it, let alone prescribe how to change it. The prescription is brain surgery.

The way your relationship with money is mapped in your brain is either changing or being reinforced with every decision about how to make it, save it, spend it, invest it and even just think about it. As Iris Murdoch wrote: ‘The task of attention goes on all the time and at apparently empty and everyday moments we are “looking”, making those little peering efforts of imagination which have such important cumulative results.’[ii]

You are losing this war not because you are lying to yourself, but because you are falling for your own bullshit.[2] You cannot lie to yourself because you cannot change a belief simply by telling yourself it’s wrong. Beliefs are not a voluntary action; you are committed to your subjective ‘truths’, even if they are objective falsehoods. You can, however, change what you pay attention to. Bullshit, in the technical sense[iii], slips concern for truth into its back pocket while it’s deceiving you with something supposedly more salient: more relevant according to rhetoric, but not reality. You don’t stop caring about truth, you just forget it’s there to care about.

This is a book about defeating self-deception, not changing beliefs. It’s about thoughtfully directing your attention, rather than letting it be caught by a succession of shiny distractions. You can bullshit yourself because you can direct your attention. But because of this you can also beat bullshit at its own game. When you pay attention to something you tell your brain it’s something worth paying attention to. It stands out for you better in future. Do this often enough and what once required a thoughtful direction of attention begins to grab attention automatically. You slowly but surely begin to be concerned with what you ought to be concerned about. Your beliefs will update themselves in due course.

Defeating self-deception

To defeat self-deception, train to see all your actions as an allocation of limited resources to either helping or hindering the goodness of your life

Defeating self-deception starts with paying attention. Specifically, paying focused attention to what is relevant to the goodness of your life. As Doidge writes, ‘Paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic change […] While you can learn when you divide your attention, divided attention doesn't lead to abiding change in your brain maps.’[iv] And to any old dogs out there: do not be dispirited! Neuroplasticity – the capacity of your brain to rewire itself and cultivate more useful connections – doesn’t fade. As Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience Michael Merzenich adds, if an adult brain pays sufficient attention, ‘everything that you can see happen in a young brain can happen in an older brain […] the changes can be every bit as great as the changes in a newborn.’[v]

Like people age because they stop moving just as much if not more than they stop moving because they age, so our brains become rigid not through nature, but through choice. To return to Doidge: ‘Anything that involves unvaried repetition – our careers, cultural activities, skills, and neuroses – can lead to a rigidity.’[vi]

So what should we be paying attention to? What patterns should we be moulding our plastic brains into knowing, and using?

Living things have feedback cycles. Output feeds back in as input, in an incessant interchange of interactions. You bounce around in an environment, bumping into things, the environment changes, which changes you, and how you bounce around, and so on. We understand ourselves only in context. So with money. You use money in a certain way, consequently crafting a life and an environment that encourages you to use it in a certain way, and so on. And so with the mind in general, ‘mental activity is not only the product of the brain but also a shaper of it.’[vii]

It is these interactions which are worthy of attention. Not only how the universe of money and all it entails is integrated together but also how your mind is integrated with it.

But what is it we need to know? Why are we paying such close attention? If picking the best investment[3] were what was required to turn money into a Good Life, we wouldn’t have to know anything too special. Recall our resources-into-good-life framework: it’s the middle bit – our human-resources interaction – that’s important. The isolated inputs on the left are circumstances, and circumstances change. The outputs on the right are not a fixed goal to be arrived at, and even if they were, a focus on the end product doesn’t get you there, the process does. However, ‘knowing’ as we commonly use the term is not enough. For common knowledge does not cultivate wisdom.

Becoming wise with money would not be difficult… if you were starting from scratch. If cultivating a healthy relationship with money were taught in schools, it wouldn’t be complicated and scary for anyone, and no one would need this book. Excavating self-deceptive strata solidified by years of neglect, and beating back the incessant waves of bullshit from your brain, and from the world at large, is more difficult. But it’s far from impossible, and it quickly gets easier. And it matters enough to try.

‘There are, unfortunately,’ wrote Jung, ‘all too many who are content to learn words by heart, and to put these words in the place of experience, thereby becoming more or less addicted, according to temperament, either to faith or to criticism.’[viii] Common knowledge – especially in personal finance – learns the names of things, but overlooks their experiential importance, and subsequently robs them of their practical utility. We need to embrace a better kind of knowing.

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[1] Having a pre-set ‘cheat day’ is a possible way around this, but the ‘eat junk’ side of cheat days (as opposed to the ‘occasionally eat excess calories’ side) is just a psychologically preferable management system; cheat days aren’t a cure. The only cure is identity change. This isn’t a diet book, though the best diet book would also be more about rewiring your brain than about your shopping basket or exercise routine.

[2] ‘We are always making ourselves susceptible to bullshit because we are being driven by powerful motivations that are salient to us that are greatly in excess of our understanding of their truth or reality. We are always all of us bullshitting ourselves.’ – John Vervaeke, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, ep. 4

[3] By the way, there is no such thing, as we’ll see in Part 3, Section 4.


[i] Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself

[ii] Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good

[iii] See Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

[iv] Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself

[v] Michael Merzenich, quoted in Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself

[vi] Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself

[vii] Norman Doidge, The Brain’s Way of Healing

[viii] Carl Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology

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