I Can Change My Brain
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 2015 (edited 2017)
The physical biology of the brain builds memories and habits into the connections that are resistant to change. We, however, can change the firing, abandoning unhealthy patterns for new ways of life.
Our brains are fascinating! A young developing brain quickly adapts to experience. New connections form and unused connections die as the brain forms an economical and powerful agent of living. Early exposures shape the child’s future by forming the mode of processing experience. But brain plasticity doesn’t end at childhood. Brains remain malleable throughout our lives. We can change our brains.
The new neuronal connections slow with age—new experiences must compete with older beliefs, established behaviors and passionate beliefs. Experience etches meaning into the structure of the brain, creating foundations that persist with stubbornness, not easily abandoned for something new and unproven. This has functional benefits allowing for economical processing of experience, building upon the past instead of constantly relearning. An evolutionary construct creates a brain resistant to change as it develops—a structural design expressed as wisdom. But learning isn’t perfect. We include with wisdom misunderstandings, faulty associations, and deceptions.
We can rewire some of the stubborn connections with intentional mindfulness. The re-learning process requires slowing down, recognizing habitual responses, and then forcefully incorporating a new response. Moving through the cycle a few times doesn’t create lasting change; the newness hasn’t yet taken root. We just forced a better reaction to a single event. A single improved action may have a positive consequence, but this shouldn’t be confused with impactful transformations. The first may lead to a high score on a test; the second leads to an exceptional student.
We can’t monitor every thought, feeling or behavior. Habits (acts performed without thought) are essential for smooth functioning, freeing psychic space. Habits are an evolutionary design for high-level functioning. Cognitively directing every action slows functioning. Habitual behavior is good; but not always. Habitual thoughts, feelings and behaviors are subject to errors. Biases influence habitual functions, skewing thinking and blinding objectivity. Emotional reactions may correspond more to the past than the present, directing us away from encounters we should be moving towards, or pulling us towards clashes we should avoid. While skepticism of every thought, feeling or behaviors isn’t practical, blindly following them may trap us in unfulfilling pathways.
"Emotional reactions may correspond more to the past than the present."
Flourishing requires using automatic processes for efficiency while curiously exploring the world beyond the comfort zones, adding new wisdom through mindful thought. We may not always enjoy the drudgery of change but can carefully select a few areas to examine and refine.
When we recognize triggers that set off powerful emotions, we gather glimpses of the automatic processes at work, dragging us through the same sequences that caused pain in the past. As we practice more intelligent responses, patiently continuing to implant new habits, the hard-wiring of the brain begins to transform and we literally begin to think in new ways.