How Blaming the Brain Can Help Create Self-empathy, New Approaches


In Schizophrenia Bulletin, Amy Johnson writes about how neuroscientific perspectives on her brain and psychological struggles have helped her feel more agency in her growth as a person.

“My understanding of neural plasticity is that the brain can both learn and unlearn unwanted ways of thinking in favor of new, better ways of coping,” writes Johnson. “But this type of learning takes time. When I blame my brain cells, how brain cells function, rather than blame myself for repetitive mistakes, it creates a willingness in me to try new styles of coping. It allows me to sort of play around with or try on new ways of acting. Self-blame keeps me stuck. Realizing that it’s my brain and not me that is keeping me stuck helps a lot.”

“I’ve read a lot of books on how limited the human brain is,” she adds. “These books help me to understand how and why my brain works the way it does and help me be more patient and compassionate with my emotional self. When I pamper my emotional self, I feel heard and I sort of validate myself, and this creates enough space for me to step away from the behavior that I know and try something brand new.”

Johnson, Amy. “How Understanding Neuroscience Helps Me Get Unstuck.” Schizophrenia Bulletin 41, no. 3 (May 1, 2015): 544–45. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbt098. (Full text)


  1. Since I don’t really understand this story, I probably shouldn’t comment. I am glad this person finds it liberating to think of her problem as caused by her brain. Rather than making her feel helpless, as she says, it makes her feel less self-blaming.

    Somehow I am having trouble grasping this, but certainly anything that helps someone get control over her own life has got to be a good thing.

    I usually have an answer for anything like this, sort of, but not this time. I hope other people comment, with more understanding than I seem to have here.

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    • I think it goes to show that some aspects of neuroscience help some people to better understand how they function on a psychological level and to rationalize some of their behaviours and maybe difficulties they have. Also a lot of people seem to find the idea of brain plasticity hopeful.

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  2. “Realizing that it’s my brain and not me that is keeping me stuck helps a lot.”
    I have sad news for her: she is her brain. It’s called being human with all our limited mental capacity (though in some ways the best there is).

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  3. What is she blaming her brain for? If it helps her to take control of her life, then great.

    If, on the other hand, she is blaming her brain for things the damage that psychotropic drugs are causing, there is an obvious problem. If she has been prescribed psychotropic drugs, her brain is probably crying out: “Good heavens! Stop blaming me! I’m just trying to cope with all the toxic substances that have been introduced into my system!”

    “I’ve read a lot of books on how limited the human brain is…”

    If she finds comfort in this, more power to her. But it might just be time to expand the library a bit… maybe include some books that demonstrate the beauty and power of the human mind, and the infinite wonder and complexity of the human brain.

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  4. Exactly right. Now for the truer joke: I don’t think my brain is on the receiving end of any efforts of mine to blame it, anyway. They just hit home in a thanks I needed that way or else they lead back to self-loathing. And it all depends. What helps might be that just referring to neuroplasticity leaves everything theoretical about brain health up in the air, for someone with no actual, identifiably medical condition. It’s simple to imagine and short to think of neuroplasticity as your governing ability to change, and you might actually blame your brain less in that way than by thinking of the disease model, just because you aren’t reifying anything substantially incriminating about yourself. It’s like snapshots of your goofy faces during changing expressions that normally no one sees. Look at my funny brain, but I am OK… and so on.

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  5. hpost’ – Blaming yourself faces you with the logical conundrum of the impossibility of obtaining an objective view on your own subjective view, so it amounts to “guiltifying” and takes endless work that never reaches the desired conclusion. And just thinking “my brain” haunts your mood, I think. On the other hand, if you’re having definite problems in living and experiencing psychological extremes, like you are allowing to be the case sometimes, it’s perfectly natural to want to understand how neurology could help you. Probably the key is to get used to working with the examples in the text and not speculate about yourself too terribly much. If you work at helping yourself, you will get there, or get more aptly self-accepting and get somewhere better, and keep building on that. I like Slaying the Dragon’s idea of taking in fresh perspectives and adding breadth, also.

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