How to Use Prompt Engineering to Rewire Your Brain

Even the most ardent free willers will have to confront the origins of their will at some point

Have you ever wondered what shapes your mind and behaviors? The influences that nudge us towards success or failure, happiness or despair? 

Let me share a magical experience from my high school years that puzzled me for a long time. A mystery that only started making sense to me years later.


When I was in grade 10, I went to a large book fair with my family. Like all events in India, it was bustling with people and energy. In the midst of the chaos, my family and I were drawn towards the stage that was particularly abuzz. The stage banner displayed the name ‘MAX’, short for 'Madras Academy for Excellence'. A group of people, who were national memory record-holders no less, were captivating the audience with their ability to quickly memorize long lists of words or facts and answer any questions about them.

I was impressed and intrigued because I was a nerdy kid, and a lot of my schoolwork required memorization. So I ended up volunteering to go on stage to use their technique to similarly learn and recall a long list. Much to my and the audience's surprise, it worked! I was able to memorize a list of 50 words in just 10 mins, and then go on stage and recall any item on the list by its number, or say it forward and in reverse. 

Naturally, I ended up signing up for their full "student success" program, where I was introduced to a wide range of concepts and techniques for goal-setting, discipline, memory, creativity, focus, speed reading, learning, communication, public speaking, etc. These were quite useful, to say the least, and had a big impact on me for years to come (I wish schools would focus more on teaching these kinds of skills). They also got me deeply interested in learning, cognitive, and behavioral science, which is where I ended up focusing a large part of my career so far.

But out of all the techniques, there was one that was the most fascinating and inexplicable. It was enticingly named "Self-Hypnosis".  


Self-Hypnosis involved standing in front of the mirror, gazing into your eyes with unblinking determination, and saying affirmations aloud, along with positive hand gestures. The affirmations had to follow the format "I will <insert goal>! I have the ability to do it! I can do it, I can!" You don't do it just once. You had to repeat it thrice and then do it all three times a day - as soon as you woke up, then once in the afternoon, and finally before going to bed. It felt like cuckoo voodoo! 

I decided to try it anyway. As advised, I aimed high and set my goal to top my school in the grade 10 board exam (an all-India standardized test). I was a good student, ranking usually among the top 5 or 10 students in the class, but topping the school was quite the stretch. So, religiously, three times a day, I'd stand in front of the mirror and say, "I will top the school in the board exam! I have the ability to do it! I can do it, I can!" I also mocked up my dream scorecard and looked at it frequently. 

Fast forward to the end of the academic year, my final score was a whopping 98% on the national exam, which catapulted me to rank #2 in my school and rank #6 in the country. This wasn't just a surprise, it was a thunderbolt out of the clear blue sky as I hadn't done as well on tests leading up to the final exam and was especially flailing in my Hindi course. 

Past the elation, as I reflected on these results, I couldn't help but wonder if Self-Hypnosis had played a role. The scientific, rational part of me was resistant. But at the same time, I couldn't ignore the lived experience. 

Unraveling the Mystery

My curiosity has since led me to discover variations of this technique. My wife showed me her childhood vision board, a collage of magazine cutouts representing her dreams and ambitions - a different, yet similar technique. There's also the controversial "Law of Attraction", popularized by Rhonda Byrne's captivatingly named book and film "The Secret". There are also many psychological studies and approaches like CBT that focuses on mindset, inner voice, and positive reframing and their impact on happiness and success. Dr.Huberman, the Standford Neurobiology professor and now famous podcaster, talks about a concept called "limbic friction" as the reason why we struggle with positive habits and shares a proven trick to regularly visualize doing the activity in great detail. Pygmalion and Placebo Effects of improved performance through increased self-belief have also been demonstrated in various studies. 

However, the mystery of self-hypnosis really started to unravel in an unexpected place - when I was tinkering with ChatGPT. For those who don't know, it's a type of Artificial Intelligence, specifically a Large Language Model (LLM) - think of it as a huge virtual brain that can understand and generate human-like text in response to your prompts.

I found it really fascinating how just telling an LLM, "You are X and you do Y and Z." seemed to instantiate a completely new personality that speaks, acts, and behaves in a different way. Every prompt somehow makes the model "take a different path" and produce a corresponding result. 

I think it's illustrative to think of our brains as LLMs. Our brains are models that are continuously trained and shaped by large amounts of data from external and internal stimuli. All stimuli also activate a specific neural pathway in our brains and generate a response - thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, just like LLMs do. 

With Self-Hypnosis (or these other techniques above), I was intentionally self-prompting myself every day with seeds of positivity, confidence, and hard work. Unbeknownst to me, these seeds were growing into fruits of achievement.

Prompt Engineer yourself 

We are incessantly bombarded by stimuli, now more than ever before - from other people, media, and our own thoughts arising from past memories and programming. I'd posit that we are unconscious and unintentional about the majority of the stimuli and resulting responses, but they greatly impact our personalities, perceptions, and actions; our peace and joy. I'd go as far as to say they are the cause of all of it. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed, unhappy, and out of control, it may be a sign that you are processing too many negative prompts, which are resulting in negative outputs and more prompts, creating a vicious cycle. You may need to "clear chat history" and flush these prompts out with some prolonged escape from stimuli. That's the reason a good night's sleep, a hike in nature, or a meditation session often leaves people feeling calm and refreshed. Drugs like psilocybin and marijuana have also been shown to diminish activity in the default mode network (DMN) in the brain, the area I associate with random prompt activity, and increase connectivity in the more conscious parts of the brain.  

On an ongoing basis, you need to intentionally select and filter your prompts by curating your environment, social circles, information diet, and your inner voice stemming from values, desires, and aversions. Buddhism's Eight-Fold Path is an excellent framework and approach to identifying stimuli and curating them well to promote harmony and well-being and avoid suffering. You want to avoid the three poisons of greed (or attachment), hatred (or aversion), and ignorance (or delusion), and the environments and people that promote them. 

You also want to intentionally prompt yourself with positive prompts that make you happier and harmonious with techniques like mindfulness, journaling, self-hypnosis or affirmations, vision boards, gratitude, metta (loving-kindness meditation), uplifting people and media, healthy lifestyle, quiet time, and time in nature.  

If you have played around with the magic of ChatGPT, then you know the power of prompts on LLMs, and now…your own brain. The art of engineering your life experience lies in your ability to curate and respond to the prompts, both internal and external, that shape your perception and actions. It's about intentionally fostering a healthy mental environment, as well as being mindful of the physical and social environments you engage with. This isn't about eliminating all negative prompts, as challenges and adversity are integral to growth. Rather, it's about cultivating mindfulness and intentionality, enabling you to navigate life's prompts with grace, resilience, and, ultimately, happiness.