VIDEO: How to Install New Mental States

What Therapists Should Know about Brain Change

Until recently, the practical impact of brain science on the everyday work of most therapists has been pretty limited. According to Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, that’s because we’ve been missing the big picture of what we’ve been learning about how the brain functions, including the organizing principles of how neural structures are built and how they change over time. As he says in this video clip, “If you want to help a client be less anxious or less depressed or more able to control himself in interactions with other people—whatever your goals are—fundamentally, that means changing brain structure. So one way to think about what we do every day as therapists is being in the business of changing the brain.”

How do we help our clients change the structure of their brain? According to Rick, “It takes learning—the alteration of neural structure and function—which proceeds in two stages. First, there must be an activated mental state: a thought, perception, emotion, desire, sense of action, or a combination of these. But that’s not enough. A second stage is critical—the installation of this passing mental state into a durable trait, a lasting neural structure.” For installation to take place, we need to pay attention to how we enrich experience.

“The brain is very good at learning from bad experiences,” Rick says, “But it’s pretty bad at learning from good experiences—unless they’re million-dollar moments.” As therapists, however, we can facilitate that brain change that helps clients learn from the good.


Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.

Rick Hanson

Rick Hanson, PhD, is a psychologist, a Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, and a New York Times best-selling author. His books are available in 26 languages and include Hardwiring Happiness (Harmony, 2016), Buddha’s Brain (New Harbinger, 2009), Just One Thing Card Deck (PESI, 2018), and Mother Nurture (Penguin, 2002).  He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has numerous audio programs.