Our life experiences get 'wired in' to our brains in the form of an intricate network of about 100 billion neurons.
Our brains are the most incredibly vast structures on the planet. And the field of developmental neuroscience has greatly improved our knowledge of how the brain works. We now understand that as our brain develops it records what what each individual learns about the world into a complex system based on connections between neurons.
The 'experiences', or circuits, that become wired together in our brains include thoughts, feelings, sensations, smells, sounds, emotions, impulses and urges, movements, actions, behaviours, images and memories. Neurons that 'fire' together - such as the thought "that puppy is soft" and the sensory and emotional experience of "delight'" - become 'wired' together due to the action of neurochemicals travelling between one neurone to the next.
When the same experiences and connections occur over and over again, chains of neurons form tiny highways that transmit information around the body and brain. Eventually, like a trail that becomes more worn as it is repeatedly used, these neuronal pathways become stronger, and download information faster and faster. This is the neuronal basis of learning.
Over time the links become more complex, forming what is known as 'neural networks'. These networks are continually firing without our conscious awareness. Like a broadband connection that instantly downloads what has previously been wired in (or learnt), our neuronal connections guide how we perceive and interpret what occurs within and around us, and how we feel and respond to those events.
The implications of brain development for how we parent our children are sobering. And the implications of neuroplasticity for people wishing to create more balance and wellbeing in their lives, and undo patterns that were established long ago, is likewise remarkable.
Neurons that fire together, wire together
Neurons that fire apart, wire apart.
When we slow down and pay careful attention to our experience, our bodies and minds can tell us a lot about themselves. If we do this mindfully, without judging our experiences or ourselves (like an objective and compassionate bystander) we develop the skills to rewire our brains.
By noticing how we are 'wired', how the network of experience works for us, we can set an intention, should we choose to do so, to change how we respond to life.
Science shows that when we intentionally and repeatedly practice new approaches, and pay attention to our overall health (diet, exercise and sleep are vital to support neuroplasticity), we can re-wire our brain.
Old connections dissolve over time, and new, life affirming ways of being get wired in.
To start, try this:
Get mindful: Next time you notice yourself experiencing a strong emotion, a bodily sensation that seems quite intense, or responding in ways that you might like to alter, slow down and take a time to reflect on your experience.
Daniel Siegel uses the acronym of SIFTing your experience, which is a lovely reminder to explore the different elements of what is occurring. See if you can notice the Sensations, Images, Feelings and Thoughts that came up for you at the time.
I also like Tara Bennet Goleman's suggestions, which include asking yourself questions like "what was going through my mind", "what story was I telling myself", "how did my body feel at the time", "what emotions were coming up", and "does this remind me of anything".
Notice whether the experience feels familiar, or whether there is anything automatic or habitual about it. Was there a trigger?
It can help to write down what you are noticing, so you can refer to it later and build a map of what is occurring, and when. With practice, we can start to notice our patterns earlier and earlier, and this creates a space for us to respond differently.
Yes, this takes time, practice, patience, and compassion for ourselves. However neuroscience is demonstrating how possible it is to rewire our brains.
If you would like support to explore new ways of responding to life and its challenges, contact us at Botanic Psychology.
Fiona Meredith is a Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist based in Adelaide, Australia.