Our life experiences get 'wired in' to our brains in the form of an intricate network of about 100 billion neurons.
The human brain is one of the most incredibly vast structures on the planet. And the field of developmental neuroscience has greatly improved our knowledge of how it works. We now understand that the growing brain records what each individual is learning 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, visceral 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 influence how we perceive and interpret what occurs within and around us, and how we feel and respond to those events.
The human infant starts to connect patterns of visceral, visual, emotional and sensory information together long before they have acquired the ability to ‘think’. As the child starts to acquire language, they retrospectively begin to form ideas (or thoughts) about themselves and the world that make sense given their internal experience.
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 time to reflect on your experience.
Notice what is occurring: 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 occurring at the time that prompted this", "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"?
Is there anything about this experience that feels familiar, automatic or habitual? Was there a trigger?
Write it down: 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. Often this may help us become aware that we tend to have the same kinds of thoughts, feelings or urges in particular situations, or that similar themes re-occur. With practice, we can start to notice these patterns earlier and earlier, and this creates a space for us to respond differently.
Be compassionate to yourself: Remember that 'patterns' of thinking, feeling, and responding were soft wired into the brain long ago. They have been repeatedly occurring, sometimes without our awareness, over and over again.
Rather than telling ourselves harshly to "stop that", or beating ourselves up for thinking or responding in a certain way (letting our inner critic take over) set the intention to respond with kindness and compassion. "That makes sense, its an old habit I have, Ive been thinking in this way kind of automatically for a long time". Congratulate yourself for becoming conscious of an unconscious pattern. For is only when we notice what is occurring that we can start to alter it.
You might then like to work with a supportive therapist, coach or mentor to explore alternative ways of perceiving yourself, others, and events in the world around us, and to develop new ways of responding to life and its challenges. Over time, this creates a new neuronal pathway to replace the old.
It takes patience, kindness and perseverance to change our old patterns, and develop new, more supportive neuronal connections. However neuroscience is demonstrating how possible it is to understand ourselves, and rewire our brains.
Fiona Meredith is a Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist based in Adelaide, Australia.