Brain Building 101. Be your own ‘Neuro-Achitect’

Our brains are constantly changing. Neuroscientists call it synaptic growth and pruning (yes…just like plants). Brains undergo a constant process of adapting that features the creation of new connections (synapses) and the removal of old ones. This means, in effect, that our brains are constantly rewiring themselves. Whether you realize it or not, your behaviours and experiences have a major impact on how connections within your brain are formed, and dissolved.  This is particularly true when we consider behaviours and experiences that we undertake routinely. Since this rewiring process happens at the neurological level without our conscious intent or control, it may not be obvious that we can take an active role in wiring our own brains. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to gain insight into the processes.

Human brains are outstanding at recognizing patterns and responding to them. When we meet someone for the first time, or taste a new flavour of ice cream, we introduce a novel pattern of neurological activity that is not yet recognized. Each time we have that same experience we re-excite the same pattern. Our brains are eventually able to identify the experience because that same brain circuitry has been ‘lit up’ repeatedly and the pattern can now be recognized. With time, ‘mocha almond fudge ice cream’ has become a unique and familiar pattern wired into your brain architecture that directly correlates with the ‘mocha almond fudge’ experience. Just as muscles that are exercised get stronger and more resilient, so do neural pathways that are activated frequently. Frequently activated patterns of activity become ‘ingrained’ and the experiences that activate them become familiar.  They also become more easily excited. Just a glimpse of that ice cream container can bring the whole experience back vividly (and with disastrous dietary results). With more experience, these patterns become richer as more information and nuance about the root phenomena are integrated. When well-trained habits, reflexes and intuitions are allowed to have the controls, there is no deliberation, and therefore no delay in our reactions This can explain how practiced and prepared experts are able to respond instantly, intuitively and effectively in challenging or creative situations, without pause for calculation or deliberation. The opposite is also true. Our ability to recognize and react to patterns that are not frequently ‘lit up’ will tend to wither and weaken with time. It makes sense that our reactions to patterns that we are not familiar with are typically slower, and reduced in quality.

Now let’s think about how our feelings about an experience will impact our ability to respond to a challenge. If we associate the phenomena (the ice cream) with the experience (ice cream eating) in a positive way, it is natural to ingrain and urge to repeat the experience. If, on the other hand, we have a terrible experience, it makes sense that we might tend to avoid it in the future, or at least, not crave it. The implication here is that it pays to be vigilant when undertaking enjoyable, but counterproductive experiences (i.e. too much – ice cream, beer, Instagram, you name it).  This also implies that we may need to make conscious effort in order to train and ingrain behaviours that are not instantly rewarding, but are nonetheless beneficial. The key is to realize that the same feedback mechanisms that ingrain effective, healthy and productive habits, can also ingrain (automatically) the unhealthy, ineffective or even dangerous habits, if you take your eye off the ball too much of the time.

So what does this mean?  It means we should carefully consider what we find rewarding and why.  It also might mean learning to cultivate a ‘buzz’ or pat on the back whenever we get it right, even when the intrinsic rewards of the activity are skimpy.   The  rewiring (or unwiring?) of old habits can be very tricky. The ‘buzz’ associated with that mouthful of ice cream is triggered by an automatic biochemical process that was built by evolution long before any of us were around.   Signs of negative consequences (gaining weight, stress on the pancreas, heart and liver) are usually conspicuously absent while the enjoyment of chewing, tasting, swallowing and enjoying are taking place. If you enjoy a beer on occasion, (or drugs or unsafe sex, or whatever) you have to realize that your brain is pre-wired to turn that occasional, enjoyable behaviour into a habit, unless you are cognitive of the full spectrum of consequences, before, during and after the enjoyment phase.

The simple act of examining the whole spectrum of consequences, positive and negative, before you partake (and, especially, re-partake) is a great first step in controlling which impulses become habits. While we are not yet able to simply ‘upload’ new files to our brains the way we do with our computer systems, we can begin to understand how we can update some of our mental habits by intent.  A basic understanding of how patterns get ingrained in brains is a great place to begin if you’d like to get serious about building effective mental habits.


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