Building new pathways.
“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”
One of my favourite discoveries about the brain; plasticity. We once believed that function lost was gone forever, and, make no mistake – this is still in some ways true. However, we now know that as we gain new abilities and perform new tasks, with practice, we are able to ‘build’ new neural pathways that did not exist before.
What does this mean for you? Well, you probably remember learning to write? Or ride a bike? You didn’t know how to do it, so you practiced over and over again. Eventually, you were able to do all these things, and later on you probably did them without even having to try!
If we measure activity (for example with a PET scan) of those doing a task for the first time, and those doing a task they’re extremely familiar with – there is a substantial difference in the amount of net activity seen. This explains why studying can make students SO. DAMN. TIRED! Exhausting amounts of energy are used to learn new things, but this is a temporary measure until the activity becomes sufficiently learned.
So, these days we’re thinking, if you can learn to ride a bike or speak another language, what if you could learn compassion? Or change the way you deal with stress? Or meditate with the same incredible discipline as a buddhist monk? Imagine the possibilities!
But before we get carried away, it’s important to understand the limitations and misconceptions. This doesn’t mean we can change the fundamental basis of our being. Some researchers believe that your ‘personality’ is developed quite early (the first few years of life), and some of your core traits are unlikely to change after that.
However, if you’re looking to learn a new skill, or adjust your behaviours, this understanding of plasticity can be very useful. It gives us hope that we can change! I’m a strong believer that this hope allowed me to completely change my life. I had a belief that I was destined to act a certain way, and this would never change no matter what. But once I saw that distant glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, I could create a different life for myself by making small changes, I knew I had to try.
What do I mean by small changes? Well to begin, I was suffering terribly with depression. I had lost control of my thoughts – they owned me – and so I decided the only thing I could control was my body. I began training in the gym 5 times per week, in the morning before work. Rain, hail or shine. I didn’t make any public announcements, I didn’t scare myself by thinking I was ‘about to change my life’. I just got up everyday, and dragged my depressed little self into the gym.
Funnily enough, I also ate good food. And made new friends. Started meditating. And started to fall in love with life again. I had regained control of my thoughts simply by commitment to practicing it.
I’m not saying this is the solution for everyone; even fit, healthy people get depressed sometimes too! But I’m saying there’s hope.
For anyone who thinks they are ‘bad at math’, or ‘could never be confident public speaking’, or ‘always yell at my kids’, I just want you to know that there is a chance you can change this behaviour by learning new ways of dealing with things, practicing those new behaviours with a vested, emotional interest, and allowing yourself to grow and change.
There’s still a lot to understand in this field of Neuroscience, but I hope I’ve inspired you to consider things differently. Learning is key!