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Change Your Beliefs, Change Your Brain Chemistry: Evidence

Disclaimer: Although the title to this post sounds like personal growth hype, it isn’t. The scientific research cited is legitimate. The real life application discussed at the end of the article may prove very helpful, but contains a flaw, as you will gather from my self-reported experiments.


If you could push a button in your brain and rewire your bad circuitry, would you?

There isn’t such a button. However, altering beliefs comes close. In fact, beliefs alone have been shown to regulate brain chemistry. Groups of people holding different beliefs exhibit very different brain activity in response to the same chemical.

The Belief-Altering Research

A recent study conducted at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute revealed that personally held beliefs regulated the effects of nicotine in the brain.

Although nicotine is difficult to deal with due to its addictive nature, studies reveal that beliefs have just as much stimulating effect.

Identical cigarettes were given to study participants. Some participants, however, were told that the cigarette was nicotine-free. Each group was then made to play a reward-based game, which  involved viewing stock price graphs and making mock investments.

Brain responses were tracked using magnetic resonance imaging, and the results were collated. The results showed that although both groups consumed cigarettes with nicotine, each group registered very different brain activity.

Additionally, those who believed to have smoked nicotine cigarettes made different choices in general and had higher brain activity than those who believed they had smoked nicotine-free cigarettes.

Commenting on the findings, Read Montague, director of the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the
Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute stated that it was the belief alone that altered brain chemistry. He also assured that this phenomenon went beyond the placebo effect (ironically).

Personal beliefs can alter the effects of nicotine in those already under the influence of the drug. Since beliefs have such potency and effectiveness in regulating physiological activity, they should be considered as integral part of any medical or psychological treatment.

Personal Experiments

Whenever I walk into the garage and notice that my 17-year-old son has left all the lights and every piece of equipment on, my brain goes haywire. “Damn kid. So irresponsible.” Then I spend the next several minutes stewing, followed at times by plotting revenge.

Really mature, I know.

My personally held belief that rears it’s ugly head at these times is something like “This kid is irresponsible and I can’t handle it.”

The belief is false because: 1) He is a responsible kid in so many ways and 2) I am capable of handling his moments of irresponsibility.

I can pile on myself further here by admitting that the number one light-leaving-on offender in our house is…me! Lights, personal fans, gadgets, etc…I tend to leave them on. Irresponsible, I know.

So, I decided that whenever I walk into the garage, my new belief would be, “He is a responsible kid who sometimes forgets to turn stuff off, just like me. We’ll work on this one together.”

It worked!

The next time I walked into the vacant light show that is our garage, I just laughed. It felt great. And it worked the following time as well. I felt fine – and gently reminded him that we’re both in need of improvement and that we need to help each other out.

The third time didn’t go so well, however.

Perhaps I wasn’t prepared. Or maybe I just got tired of being so mature – but I reacted poorly. Interestingly, I knew what I was doing and that I had other choices, but I didn’t care.

This is the Achilles heel of altering your own beliefs.

In the research above, participants did not know that their beliefs were being manipulated. Therefore, they had no motivation to resist. When you alter your own beliefs, however, you aren’t participating in a blinded study. You are free to resist the change.

Now, why on earth would anyone resist a positive change? It’s a question for the ages, really. My own paradigm on self-sabotage – how it works, why it is so tempting, is detailed in this video.

We can sum all this up like this:

1.    Consider a situation that troubles you.

2.    Determine what you want to believe in that situation.

3.    Re-enter with the new belief or perspective.

4.    Enjoy the results!

5.    If the change doesn’t stick, consider it a practice over time, or investigate your tendency to self-sabotage.

If part of you wants to hang onto the old, unhealthy response, then you have some work to do.

Until someone invents an automatic belief change device, this is where we’re at. I’m not sure I’d want my beliefs changed so easily, anyway.

If you like this article, then like my Facebook Page to keep up with all my writing.

Additional Resources

To learn more about how and why it’s so important to discover which beliefs may be driving you, read Mel Schwartz’s provocative article on Psychology Today:

Learn how limiting beliefs form “mind traps” and how to escape them on the iNLP Center:

Check out Emily Robert’s hard hitting advice on letting go of limiting beliefs over at A Healthy Place:

Review a summary of the nicotine research on Science Daily:

Change Your Beliefs, Change Your Brain Chemistry: Evidence

Mike Bundrant

Mike Bundrant is the author of Your Achilles Eel: Discover and Overcome the Hidden Cause of Negative Emotions, Bad Decisions and Self-Sabotage and co-founder at The iNLP Center which offers online certification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and life coaching.

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APA Reference
Bundrant, M. (2015). Change Your Beliefs, Change Your Brain Chemistry: Evidence. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 12, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Mar 2015
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