It has been a cold and snowy winter here is Boulder, CO. While I don’t love the snow (or winter in general!) I do love to go sledding.
Sledding is also one of my favorite metaphors to use when I talk to my clients about change and creating new habits.
We all know that change can be hard and, like sledding, at times we may find ourselves “stuck in the rut” we’ve constructed.
- But why is change hard?
- And how can we break free from our ruts and establish new paths?
Read on and we’ll explore this together…
CLEARING YOUR PATH
Can you picture this scenario?
The fresh snow falls and you say, “Let’s be the first to get to the sledding hill! This will be so much fun!”
But the first time you attempt to sled down the untouched snow there is no path.
You sit on your sled at the top and you inch your way down, moving only a few feet.
You are nowhere close to making it to the bottom of the hill—and far from having fun!
So, you trudge your way back up the hill and you try again.
The next time, you make it a little further down the hill.
Then the next time, even a little further.
Then, after several trips down the hill, the snow becomes packed and your path becomes clear.
Now you’re cruising—and having a blast!
It’s effortless to get down the hill. Each time, your sled simply follows the path you worked to create.
THE SCIENCE OF NEUROPLASTICITY
Our brain works similarly to the sledding path.
With sledding, each subsequent time you take the same path, a deeper and well-established track develops.
With our brains, each time you have the same thought or engage in the same behavior, the neural connections in your brain becomes stronger through repetition and use.
These neural connections are the basis for learning and memory.
They are why we initially found it challenging to learn how to ride a bike…but also how we can get on one after many years and remember exactly what we are doing.
They are why we can remember the lyrics to that song we haven’t heard since our teens…but was played everywhere back then!
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to modify its structure and function in response to experience. This means that the neural pathways and networks in the brain are constantly changing in response to our experiences.
Until relatively recently it was believed that the brain was fixed after childhood and incapable of forming new neural connections. This theory was disproven in the 1980s with the discovery of neuroplasticity, which showed that the brain has the ability to reorganize itself throughout our life.
THE PLASTIC PARADOX
The term “plasticity” refers to the ability of the brain to change and adapt. As Norman Doidge, M.D. says in his book The Brain that Changes Itself:
“Neuroplasticity has the power to produce more flexible but also more rigid behaviors—a phenomenon I call ‘the plastic paradox’.”
The positive effect of neuroplasticity means that our brains are malleable and have the capacity to develop new neural connections throughout our whole life.
This enables us to learn new skills and improve our cognitive function, even as we age (for example, learning how to speak a new language at age 70). It also allows our brains to heal, making recovery from brain injury or disease possible (for example, walking or talking again after a stroke).
However, the negative effect of neuroplasticity can include the development of maladaptive patterns of neural activity, such as in the case of stubborn habits, addiction, or chronic pain.
Additionally, changes in the brain can be associated with certain neurological conditions such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. (I’ll cover this more in another post.)
CHANGE = ESTABLISHING YOUR NEW PATH
What if you notice you have maladaptive patterns and you want to make a change? We all know how hard this can be, but why is that so?
Let’s go back to our sledding analogy.
If you want to change paths—to start again at the top of the hill but instead end up somewhere different at the end—you not only need to work to forge that new path, but also to keep your sled from traveling back down the already well-established one!
This means that if you want to see change in a thought or behavioral pattern that isn’t serving you, it will take time and repetition just like it required in the first place.
Additionally, it will take a sustained effort to think, feel, act and respond in a different way than you are accustomed to—so that you don’t recreate the thoughts and behaviors that will take you right back down the first path again! (The first path is right there…it would be so easy to just go down it again, right?!)
Remember, any repetitive activity will strengthen neural connections, so which ones do you want to strengthen? The new or the old one!?
Changing the route or destination will eventually lead to new opportunities and experiences.
And, over time, that new path can become the deeper and more established one!
“A single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”― Henry David Thoreau