Day 15: The Brain Does Not Hear “No”

Although this seemingly stunning revelation should never have left my consciousness after I heard it, I really heard my therapist say it a few years ago and then forgot it. I remembered it again in a class last week about how to provide educational opportunities from misbehavior in children: the brain does not hear negatives.

Creative commons brain from

It made immediate sense to me. If you tell yourself, “I’m not going to eat junk food,” all the brain hears is “eat junk food.” If you tell yourself, “I’m not going to drink,” the brain hears “drink.” It’s the same with children. “Don’t hit!” will probably have far less of an effect than “keep your hands to yourself.”

Just think of all the time I’ve wasted not using this really important life-changing information. Most habits I want to change are to stop doing something, so I engage in brilliant self-talk such as “I’m not going to eat junk food today.” My brain cooperates by whispering “eat junk food today, eat junk food today.” The better thing to do would be to speak my brain’s language and say “I’m going to eat healthful food today” and then sit back and listen to “eat healthful food, eat healthful food.”

Similarly, “I’m going to walk on the treadmill after work” (“going to walk on the treadmill after work!”) would serve me better than “I’m not going to sit on the couch after work” (“sit on the couch after work!”). All of this came from my plan to write about losing more weight and my despair in feeling as if my appearance is tied to medications I have no choice about. It is, in fairly large part, but most likely if I moved more and ate fewer M&M’s I would weigh less regardless of the medications I need.

I’m going to start retraining my self-communication skills starting right now. I’m not even going to stop saying “not.” Instead, I’m going to start framing things in a can-do way.

– Nurse, writer, editor -


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