I’ve recently been reading The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. As you can imagine, it’s all about habits – how they are formed, why we form habits, and how we can change them. I have also been reading a lot about neuroplasticity:
The way the brain reorganizes itself by forming new connections throughout life.
Neuroplasticity is our ability to adapt to change – to learn new ways of thinking, feeling, speaking & acting. It doesn’t matter how old you are – your brain is malleable, flexible and able to shift.
It is possible to “teach an old dog new tricks”.
By the time we are ten years old, our brain has actually pruned away about thirty percent of the synapses (connections) that were formed between neurons, because they are not being used. By adulthood, twenty-five percent of the brain stops forming new neural pathways – so habits are “set in stone”. This leads us to have biases and attitudes that are hard to change!
Old dog – new tricks!
Nevertheless, neuroplasticity accepts that the human brain changes its structure and function based on life experiences – repeated behaviours, emotions and thought patterns. If you want to create a new pathway, you need to stop using the old one.
It’s like a path through a forest – when it is well-worn – it is easy to walk along the path. But should you decide to leave the path – you need to cut your way through the forest. You have to be aware of every step – of obstacles and the new landscape. If you choose to cut a new path through the forest, then you need to use it consistently, so that it also becomes easy to use and follow. If you abandon the old path for long enough, the forest will grow over it, and the old path will eventually be swallowed up by the forest. A similar thing happens in our brain – the neural pathways that are discarded are eventually pruned off and may no longer be readily apparent.
Repetitive behaviour – whether conscious or unconscious – creates a habit!
Donald Hebb is famous for his phrase:
Neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurons that fail to link, fire out of sync.
The way that habits form, form us – our thought patterns, our emotions, and our actions. We can either do this consciously – or unconsciously. This is one of the reasons why emotional eating can be difficult to tackle! We eat unconsciously – because we have trained ourselves to get this reward.
Architects & builders
Do you want to be the architect of your life?
Then start to pay close attention to your habits!
When we are under a lot of stress or presented with a “trigger” – a cue that we have associated with a particular behaviour – we often revert back to the “old ways”. We return, without even thinking, back to the way we’ve always done it. This is how we drive home on auto-pilot and don’t even notice any of the scenery along the way – you suddenly find yourself “home”. This is probably how you back out of your driveway each morning – you are not taking note of the shrubs & bushes, because you already know exactly where they are!
Triggers & cues
But if you want to change something, like your emotional eating, then you have to identify your “trigger” or cue – what is causing this behaviour? This is why mindfulness is such a buzzword. Through self-awareness – being mindful – you notice the triggers. Once you have identified your trigger or cue – you can then choose to respond differently to the stimulus.
For example – I feel lonely, so I eat chocolate to feel better. When I become self-aware, I notice that I am feeling lonely, so I choose to call a friend and suggest we go and grab a coffee. Instead of reverting to chocolate to make me feel better, I notice the need and take care of it.
This is why the process of listening to your inner whispers is so effective in assisting clients – because instead of seeing food as a problem – we start to identify food as being the “symptom”, rather than the cause. We use this awareness – I wanted to eat – to ask “what were you really hungry for?”. Then we satisfy the real need – to live a more passionate and involved life – rather than smothering the issues with food!
The more often you repeat the new response – you create a new neural pathway in your brain – a new path through the forest. As you pay attention to the new neural pathway – as you repeat the small steps of new behaviour that you are building – celebrate! You are the architect of your life. Reward yourself!
Habits conserve energy
As we suggested above, habits allow our brain to conserve energy. A habit is anything that we routinely do without thinking about it.
Do you think about how to tie your shoelaces? Or do you just do it?
It’s like software that runs in the background – a script that simply takes care of “task A”.
Imagine if, for each task you did on the computer, you had to write the software each time you wanted to run it! How exhausting would that be?
Habits are the software that allow us to complete a task without having to write the code!
So, we repeat a mental state or emotion – happy – worried – angry. These become habitual.
We repeat actions – exercising – connecting to social media – driving a car. We check Facebook when we should be studying – reinforcing a pattern of avoidance. We practice single focus, instead of multitasking – honing our pathway of concentration & focus.
Social media addiction.
All patterns. These all become habitual – either positively assisting us or creating a destructive habit in our lives.
“I’m getting old” – is really just negative neuroplasticity. We stop learning & adapting to change – become “stuck in our ways”. We desire predictable routines. Some of these are good reasons, but they can lead to “stuckness”.
Remember, every habit has a reason for its existence.
You didn’t program the software because you had bad intentions – it served a purpose at the time. But, over time, you begin to notice that there are secondary effects that you were not expecting and decide to change the habit.
Perhaps to step outside of your comfort zone and build a new habit.
Beyond your comfort zone
The reason that it is so difficult to move out of your comfort zone is exactly these aspects of habitual pathways of the brain. When we move into a totally new environment – a new way of living – we have to consciously choose at every moment how to act & react.
Instead of being able to conserve energy and simply operate “automatically” the brain is required to pay attention constantly. Therefore, we are uncomfortable out of our comfort zones. We don’t know which habits to fall back on – the mindless steps & tasks that we could undertake!
When we live outside of our comfort zone, we have to build new habits that assist and positively help us in this new area. This requires that we develop new skills – resilience, flexibility & adaptability to new challenges!
Constantly mindful and conscious.
Change is uncomfortable – because even your routine neural pathways are being challenged!
When you stop driving your life on auto-pilot and you start paying attention
– then you have the opportunity to rewrite your life –
one neural pathway at a time!
4 thoughts on “Neuroplasticity – forming new habits”
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