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 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 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 quite frequently. With practice, we can start to notice our patterns earlier and earlier, and this creates a space for us to respond differently.
Be compassionate to yourself: Remember, these '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.
When we were little children, without the benefit of years of experience and possibly even before we had language, so we may not have been able to ask a wise, knowledgable and loving adult to explain things to us, we formed ideas and beliefs about what was occurring within or around us which we believed were 'facts'. And on the basis of these thoughts or ideas (which we confused with 'facts') we developed ways of responding (or 'strategies') that helped us navigate this bewildering thing called life. The strategies we developed at that time - perhaps to keep ourselves safe, keep us connected to others, or help us feel better - made sense to us, and in one way or another they worked. No wonder we kept using them!
So when we notice thoughts arising, we can say to ourselves "Ah, Im having that thought again". Or you might notice that you are doing something repetitively "Ah, Ive been using that old strategy of avoiding things" (or distracting, eating, ruminating, isolating ~ whatever you have started to notice for yourself).
Rather than telling ourselves harshly to "stop that", or beating ourselves up for having the thought or responding in a certain way (letting our inner critic take over) we need to apply infinite doses of compassion and kindness to ourselves. Of course you are thinking or feeling or responding this way. Its the old pathway at work. "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 noticing the pattern. Then kindly, gently, see if you can take a different action. Its as if we are becoming that wise, loving, kind adult to a child-like part of ourselves, and encouraging ourselves to perceive things a little differently, or practice a new skill.
This does not mean that we need to ignore our feelings, or put them aside, but that we acknowledge our feelings and explore how they may have come about, and how we can support ourselves.
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.
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.