New Habits and the Brain
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 2018 (edited February 14, 2022)
Behavioral change happens at a cellular level. The neuroplasticity of our brain allows for change, strengthening connections to support new learned behaviors.
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 and Neuroplasticity
Learning occurs in the physical structure of the brain. When we learn, neuronal connections form, weaken or dissolve. Joseph LeDoux, a Professor of Science at New York University's Center for Neural Sciences, explains
"... physiological plasticity is accompanied by axon branching and new synapse formation both during development and following learning" (2003, Location 1502).
Lisa Feldman Barrett describes brain plasticity in more detail in her new book. She writes, "your brain is constantly under construction. Neurons die, and in some parts of the human brain, neurons are born. Connections become more or less numerous, and they become stronger when neurons fire together and weaker when they don’t." (2020, location 381).
In early development, an infant and young child's brain are constantly in the process of change. The brain is constantly shaped by two processes "tuning and pruning" (location, 508). Tuning is the strengthening of frequently used connections and pruning is allowing less used connection to die off. Barrett explains that pruning is essential for infant brains because "little humans are born with many more connections than they will ultimately use" (location 514).
LeDoux reminds that "although the extensive plasticity that is present in early life eventually stops, our synapses do not stop changing, but remain subtly changeable by experience" (2003, location 1835). Our brains remain plastic, changing to experience.
Neuroplasticity is the organizing of neuron connections in reaction to particular behaviors and thoughts.
Strengthening Neuronal Connections (Tuning)
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. In Unlocking the Emotional Brain, Bruce Eckler and Robin Ticic explain, "the brain’s neural circuits are changed therapeutically through new experiences, not through cognitive insights alone" (2012, p. 31).
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 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.
Defensive Adaptations to Arousal
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.
"Emotional bursts of discomfort demand we act to relieve the excited system. We adapt to these feelings, designing a relieving response."
Mindfulness and Brain Plasticity
Through mindfulness, we may discover that we have adapted defensive strategies that fail to improve our lives. We often avoid 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.
Daniel Siegel wrote that "focused attention can mobilize neural circuits of self-regulation as the individual uses awareness to modulate the “internal constraints” of the brain" (2020, location 6163).
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 immortal 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 (the brain plasticity) transforms our lives. We learn and our brain changes. We literally become a new person—kind of.
*Previously published as Changing Brain Structures
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Barrett, L. F. (2020). Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Ecker, B., Ticic, R. (2012). Unlocking the Emotional Brain. Routledge; 1st edition
LeDoux, J. (2003). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Penguin Books
Siegel, D. J. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition.