It’s Not Brain Surgery

Life is not brain surgery. It’s harder.

I’ve got some news for you, my friend: brain surgery is not the hardest thing in the world.

Oh, I know it’s thought of that way, which is why the phrase, “It’s not brain surgery” is so widely used, except by rocket scientists, who have their own, much more obscure phrase.

Today I want to talk to you about the fact that brain surgery is actually something that anyone can learn. And I would suggest to you that it’s something that we all NEED to learn if we want to become healthier, feel better, and be happier in our lives.

Now, I should point out that I’m not talking about physical, in-the-operating-room brain surgery. You do actually have to go to school to learn that. And I wish you would, because I need a partner. But that’s another story.

I’m always saying that you can’t change your life until you change your mind. Learning to purposefully and strategically manage our minds and change our thinking is how we learn the art of self brain surgery.

The truth is, it’s easy. It’s not rocket science.

But me saying it all the time isn’t the same as you understanding it, so I realized that you’re probably like Ricky Ricardo, who was always telling Lucy, “You got some splaining to do!”, and today I’ve got some ‘splaining to do for you.

Hey, today we’re going to get real, go deep, and learn how to change our minds using self brain surgery.

We’re going to change our lives by changing our minds.

We’re going to start today.

Welcome to You Start Today, the Dr. Lee Warren weekly podcast to help you change your mind to accomplish real changes in your life. If you’re ready to become healthier, feel better, and be happier in your mind, body, spirit, work and relationships, keep coming back for my best prescriptions every week. And every day, start today.

I’m Dr. Lee Warren, a brain surgeon slash writer who knows that life is harder than brain surgery. I’ve been on the ropes, but I’ve learned the secrets of not just surviving the war of life, but how to thrive. You can too, but you have to start today. And I know you can do it: it’s not brain surgery (except that it sort of is).

This is Episode 067: It’s Not Brain Surgery. You can get the show notes and more on my website at

Listen: you can’t change your life until you change your mind. Sometimes you need a brain surgeon to help you do that. Let’s go.

If you’re new to this show, or if you don’t get my newsletter (which you can get for free at, you might be wondering what all this talk about changing your mind is about.

But seriously, you need my newsletter. Trust me. Every Monday we talk about important stuff you can’t get here, on my blog, or in my books. The newsletter is the place where we go DEEP, get REAL, and get SERIOUS about having the best life we can have. It’s read all over the world, in forty countries and every state of the USA, and you need it. Please go get it at

But I digress…

We’re talking today about self brain surgery to help us learn to change our minds. Why is that so important?

First, let’s talk about my work in real, flesh-and-blood brain surgery. My patient comes to me because of some problem, like headaches or memory loss or paralysis, and we get an MRI and find a tumor or a hemorrhage or an infection. Then we go to the operating room and put the patient to sleep and clamp their head to the table and shave their head, cut their skin, saw a hole in the skull and use a knife to cut into the dura, the covering over the brain, and then I can attack the tumor or whatever the problem is. Then, when I’ve done all I can do, I sew up the dura, screw the skull back together, and sew the scalp closed.

There’s blood loss. There’s pain, there’s swelling, and there’s a lot of time to recover.

It’s expensive, it hurts, it’s dangerous and scary for people to have to go through.

But over time it usually helps. The symptoms improve or disappear, the scans look better, and people are happier, healthier, and go on with their lives.

But it takes several things happening to reach the improvement: the patient has to recognize there’s a problem. They have to admit it, first to themselves and then to others. Then they admit they need help, seek it, and submit to my expertise in this area.

They have to let me help them before they can get better.

Self-brain surgery, on the other hand, is vastly simpler.

But the principles are the same.

You recognize a symptom: you’re depressed, you’re anxious, you’re scared, you believe you’re worthless, you’ve been rejected and think it’s your fault, you’re broke, you’re unemployed, you wonder if you’re lovable, you’re worried about having enough money for retirement, you’re not sure God loves you or even if he’s real… whatever it is, you can’t stop thinking about it. It’s becoming overwhelming for you, and it’s dominating your thoughts.

The first thing you have to do is admit it.

You have a problem.

And then, like I do in the exam room when I show you the MRI, you have to understand that YOU and THE PROBLEM are not the same thing. I can go to the operating room and find a way to separate your brain from the tumor. And you have to be able to separate YOU from the things YOU THINK ABOUT.

That sounds funny, but think about it for a second: how often do you feel sad, and you say, “I’m sad.”

You feel unloved and you say, “I’m unlovable.”

You feel financially strained and you say, “I’m unsuccessful.”

My psychiatry professor in medical school said, “Feelings are not facts.”

The truth is, my friend, YOU ARE NOT THE THINGS YOU THINK ABOUT, unless you choose to be.

So the first part of self-brain surgery is making the correct diagnosis that your overwhelming thought, since it IS NOT WHO YOU ARE, is something you have the power to change.

It’s not simple, but it’s also not rocket science… shout out to my friend Mark Jones, who actually is a rocket science type inpidual, NASA test pilot, super smart dude.

Just like my patients in the office, you’ll realize that many times you can’t fix everything by yourself. Sometimes you need professional help, and sometimes, yes, you need a brain surgeon.

Listen, it’s no problem to admit you need help. You’re still the hero of your own story if you get the help you need, make the appropriate changes, and win the battle of your own life.

Every story you’ve ever read, essentially, follows one central plot line. Thanks to Donald Miller for simplifying this so well. All great stories go something like this:

A hero has a problem, then meets a guide. The guide shows him the way, calls him to action, and the result of that action is either a comedy (success) or a tragedy (failure).

Think about it: from Gilgamesh to John Grisham, from Homer to Harry Potter and Yoda to You Start Today, the formula for a great story is that people need a guide to point them the their own victory, right?

So don’t think it’s a character flaw to need help. In fact, it’s just life. We all need a guide, a spouse, a helper, a friend, a doctor, someone to help us through these rough spots.

Now I should say at this point: if you’re so depressed you can’t get out of bed, so anxious you can’t leave your house, so OCD you remove your oven from your house and take it to the car wash to clean it (I’ve seen that, by the way), then this podcast isn’t enough for you. You need to go see a doctor, a psychiatrist, a therapist, someone. You shouldn’t substitute these podcasts for real professional help; I’m a good doctor, but I’m not YOUR doctor in this regard.

But if your issue is largely related to how you think, then keep listening.

Because you can’t change your life until you change your mind. In future episodes we’re going into specifics about relational, emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, leadership, occupational, and other types of self-brain surgery. But for the rest of this week, I just want to implore you to understand how important to learn how to master your thought life.

It’s like the old children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

When you change your mind,

You improve how your brain works

When you improve how your brain works,

You improve your neurochemistry

When you improve your neurochemistry

You improve your mood

When you improve your mood

You improve your outlook

When you improve your outlook

You improve your confidence

When you improve your confidence

And on and on it goes:

When you change your mind, you change your life.

You can have more happiness

More opportunity

Better relationships

Healthier finances

Everything changes, when you learn the art of self brain surgery, and how to change your mind.

Let me give you some background on me.

I’ve been porced. I’ve been to war in Iraq, and I know what it’s like to be mortared, to have young soldiers die in my hands, and to come home and live with that.

And in 2013, we lost our son Mitch.

So trust me when I say that I understand that life is hard. When I talk about being happy, I’m not saying that life is easy or that you should ignore the painful things and act happy anyway.

Hear me friend: life is hard. It’s a war. But we have to live it. And there’s no sense letting this hard life make you miserable or scared or otherwise unhappy, because there is one fundamental truth to brain science:

You can feel better by thinking better.

Now hear me carefully: I’m a highly trained neuroscientist and surgeon, and I know that it’s not healthy to just slap a smile on your face and “fake it ’till you make it,” and pretend like everything’s okay when it’s not.

If we want to be psychologically healthy people, we must acknowledge our challenges and issues and learn to manage them appropriately.

I’m talking about something deeper, a secret that will fundamentally change your life for the better:

Life is hard, but you can be happy anyway.

It starts with a fundamental commitment that we will not give circumstances or other people the ability to define us, label us, assign value to us, or otherwise control us or take the power from us to be happy.

You, as an inpidual created and loved enough by the God of the universe to die for your sins, are uniquely valuable. No one and nothing other than God’s love for you is allowed to tell you how valuable you are, because God says you’re worth more than the whole world to him. That’s a fact, and you can read John 3 and Luke 15 for more about how important you are to God.

So all that to say this: the difficult circumstances of our lives seem or feel like they have immense power to harm us, define us, cloud our brains with negative thoughts and limiting stories, and make us believe that we can never get over, get past, or get on with our lives if certain things have happened, certain people have mistreated us, certain relationships have ended, certain financial realities have come upon us, etc.

Here’s an example from my life.

Shortly after we lost our son, a woman talked to me about a support group she was in for grief. She told me how her sister had lost a child twenty years before, and this lady had been going to a weekly grief support group every Monday night for twenty years. She said how hard it was for her to lose her nephew, and how she’d simply never been able to stop grieving and the group really helped. She invited us to be part of it.

This was one of many such invitations we received, and I’ve seen firsthand in numerous patients and friends how important support groups can be in helping people deal with painful situations.

But Lisa and I, after a few months, realized that we had to make some decisions about our grief.

We recognized the power of allowing grief to intercalate itself into our lives and become something by which we were identified.

And we changed our minds. We acknowledged that we would always be bereaved parents. But that we would not perpetually live in a bereaved state.

Make no mistake: I miss my son at every moment of every day. As I record this episode, his 24th birthday is coming up in two weeks. I miss him and am devastated by his loss as much today as I ever have, and I’ll never get over that. But I am not defined by or powerless to be forever imprisoned in the emotional state of having lost a child. I’d rather live in a place of gratitude for who my son was than in a place of grief for having lost him. Does that make sense to you?

Lisa and I changed our minds, and accepted the reality of the circumstance that our son died. But, we also acknowledged that losing Mitch could only have the power to ruin the rest of our lives if we chose to let it do so. And that would have harmed our other children, our business, our grandkids, and our marriage.

Instead, we committed to honoring Mitch’s life by helping other people process their pain and learn to survive and thrive through the wars of their lives. To redeem our loss by helping others in theirs. We chose to accept the reality of losing our son, and to let our response to that loss become something that would make Mitch proud. To make something good come from the worst thing imaginable. And that decision has led to my blog, my newsletter, this podcast, my books, and this entire, worldwide movement called You Start Today.

But changing our minds on such a deep and fundamental level didn’t just happen overnight. It took work. It took effort. It took self brain surgery.

Here’s another example, this one from my practice.

I meet a lot of people who have chronic pain. It’s a huge part of my work as a neurosurgeon, trying to relieve pain and suffering.

But I’ve noticed something about patients who have chronic pain: They come in two flavors.

There are some people who understand that their pain is telling them something, and they come to me to figure out what’s wrong and what can be done about it. But they’re still living their lives, still working, still taking care of themselves and their families. They don’t deny that it hurts, but they have made a decision that pain will not define their lives.

The other group has become something altogether different. Their pain becomes who they are. They give in to it, almost worship it. It becomes the centerpiece of their relationships and family dynamic revolve around mom’s back pain. It changes how they dress, how they work, and their lives become about seeking medicines for the pain, disability payments for the pain, lawsuits to be compensated for the pain, and every aspect of their life is related in one way or another to the pain.

And over the years I’ve figured out that there’s no statistical difference in these two groups of patients in terms of the severity of the underlying problem, our ability to make it better with surgery, their economic status or background.

The difference is in how they think.

Look, Tony Robbins says that “emotion follows motion,” and he’s right. Our old pastor Chris Hodges says, “Actions lead and feelings follow.”

There’s no doubt that when you think better you act better

Other people respond to you better

You become more confident

Your heart math improves

Your vibe changes

People like it, respect you, listen to you

You become more of a leader

Your kids improve

Your marriage improves

Your life improves

You become healthier, feel better and you feel happier.

When you change your mind, you change your life.

And you change your mind with self-brain surgery. By learning how to ignore those automatic negative thoughts life has taught us to think about. By learning that feelings can be barometers but they are terrible compasses. By learning that not everything we THINK turns out to be TRUE, so we should discipline ourselves to inspect our thoughts, challenge them, refine and control them, replace them with better ones we KNOW to be true.

Let me give you a checklist, courtesy of the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8 The Voice (VOICE)

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, fill your minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy.

My friend, if you take command of your thoughts, if you perform the bad thought biopsy and replace those cancerous, limiting, harmful, lying notions that are trying to direct your steps with things that are honorable, good, pure, lovely, you’ll see your brain chemistry improve, and you’ll watch your life start feeling better.

You’re the hero in your story. No matter what life has felt like so far.

I can be a guide, or you might have another one. A pastor, a writer, a good friend, your spouse or your dad or your mom or a therapist.

Memorize that verse I mentioned, Philippians 4:8, and use it as a mental checklist. Tell yourself, “I’m not going to spend time thinking about things that don’t fit that list.” Watch what happens.

I’m not saying to ignore your bills because you think it’s not lovely to think about debt, by the way. This isn’t an exercise in ignoring reality.

I’m talking about how you think about YOU.

Is it time for some self-brain surgery? In coming weeks we’ll look at several specific areas in which we often need some self-brain surgery, but for now I just want you to know what I mean when I say this:

You can’t change your life until you change your mind.

I’m going to give you some tools to use in that life-saving operation, self-brain surgery.

But you have to identify your problem, articulate the symptoms, admit you need help, even if it’s just from yourself.

You have to sign up for self-brain surgery.

And you have to start today.


If you have a question or a comment, email me via

Remember: Life isn’t brain surgery; it’s harder. It’s a war. But even though life is hard, God is faithful. You can have the life you were created to have, but sometimes you need some self-brain surgery, and you always have to start today.

If you like my podcast, you’ll love my newsletter. Every Monday I give you my best prescriptions for a better, healthier, happier life, for free. Check it out and join the community at

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I’m Dr. Lee Warren and you’ve been listening to YST. Be sure to subscribe via iTunes so you automatically get new episodes. I’m trying to get to 30,000 downloads a month, so you subscribing and sharing the show with your friends will really help. Thanks!

You can get the show notes to this episode and links to the books and other resources I mentioned at

I can’t wait to talk to you next week, but you start today.

Hey, this week I think I’m gonna grab my Paul Reed Smith electric guitar that my lovely wife (an my personal self-brain surgery guru) gave me and play along with Podington Bear’s Blue Highway, our theme music that I got for free at

Have a great week my friend. Don’t forget, start today!

Theme Music is Blue Highway by Podington Bear, license courtesy of Creative Commons.


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