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Changing Brain Structures
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 2018
Rewiring Brain Connections
Behavioral change happens at a cellular level. We remap our brains through mindful effort. Repeated behaviors and thoughts create new connections.
The mind is a mysterious place. We know that it partially, if not completely exists within the structures of the brain. Philosophers have speculated for thousands of years on the correlations between the physical properties of the brain and the less tangible realms of thought. Science slowly is discovering the secrets of memory, emotion and motivation—they all exist within the physical realm of the body—brain. For some this shakes the sacred and disrupts the religious. For me, it just adds to the awe of human existence. We learn and create physical changes to our brains.
Learning occurs in the physical structure of the brain. When we learn, neuronal connections form, weaken or dissolve. Stumbling on a new concept intrigues curiosity and even leaves a small deposit in memory but a simple exposure to titillating information is not enough for full integration, we need more than a burst of insight to create lasting change. Integrating knowledge into improved behaviors requires persistence. We want full-body learning, carving new paths, and creating new bridges, not a momentary flash of, “wow that’s neat.”. Similar experiences when repeated trigger the firing of many of the same groupings of neurons; the new experience closely resembling the past sends surges through the brain, calling forward past wirings, firing neurons, and provoking similar emotions.
Emotional bursts of discomfort demand we act to relieve the excited system. We adapt to these feelings, designing a relieving response. We pull our hand from the fire, we walk away from the lover, or we project guilt on an undeserving passerby. We adapt in a variety of healthy and healthy manners. But to the unconscious, all action appears justified—they feel and then they act.
Through mindfulness, we may discover we have adapted defensive strategies that fail to improve our lives. We routinely avoid the discomforts without addressing the primary causes. The discovery of deeper processes of the mind illuminates the past, explaining emotions and giving a quick flash of enlightenment. But the enlightenment—no matter how accurate—doesn’t reconfigure the neuronal connections.
"Emotional bursts of discomfort demand we act to relieve the excited system. We adapt to these feelings, designing a relieving response."
The same triggering events continue to ignite a chain of neuronal firings that demand ego protection. For true integration—full body learning—we can’t live unconsciously. We must focus attention on the reactions and consciously suppress responses that lead us away from our goals. We must intervene, fighting against the momentum of sameness by intentionally forcing new behaviors that we are unaccustomed to—behaviors leading to our long-term desires. By recognizing triggering events and mindfully choosing alternate responses, we begin to create new neuronal connections. Slowly, we establish new habitual responses. Over time, a new grouping of neuronal firings is initiated by the old triggering event; but now the new automatic response is beneficial and in line with where we want to go. In Thomas Hebb’s words, “cells that fire together, wire together.”
We can rewire our brain through mindful attention, acting in ways that are uncomfortable and new, awkwardly at first, but automatic in time. As we practice, the hard-wiring transforms our lives. We literally become a new person—kind of.
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