- By: John Stenberg
- Date: Jan 03, 2018
As we kick off another new year and resolve that “this time things will be different,” I think we should address the elephant in the room – CHANGE IS HARD! If you’re like most people then you’ve probably gone down this road before only to have your motivation be met with frustration. Whether it’s losing a few pounds by starting a new exercise plan, finally kicking a bad habit, or just becoming more organized with your time, it often takes more than will-power to make changes that last. So why is change so hard? Understanding the scientific explanation may be just what you need to do things differently in 2018. HINT: it’s all in your head (or at least in your brain!)
To understand how to change a behavior, we first must understand how behaviors are formed. Think back to when you were learning how to drive. You were probably very excited, a little nervous, and you almost certainly had no idea what you were doing. Operating a vehicle safely requires a lot of new skills and you needed to get up to speed (pun intended) before you could enjoy the freedom of the open road. You probably learned quickly that it’s not as easy as it looks – at least not yet. This new experience requires the application of a lot of new knowledge and involves nearly all of your senses – feeling the way the car moves when you turn the wheel, hearing the sound of the engine purring, seeing new signs and signals, and of course that new(ish) car smell.
Each of these processes involve different parts of the brain to take in new information, interpret it, and make an appropriate response. For example, imagine you are driving down a nice suburban street when all of the sudden a dog runs into the road. To avoid a nasty collision your brain has to see the dog, understand that it’s not supposed to be in the road, and then tell your right foot to move from the gas pedal to the brake pedal – and FAST. While these sorts of actions occur all of the time, our ability to navigate the road safely increases over time and with many repetitions. The mundane task of simultaneously easing onto the brake while turning on your turn signal and checking for oncoming traffic all happens without a second thought, but it wasn’t always that way.
NEURO-PLASTICITY – how your brain learns new behaviors
In the above example, your brain has to rapidly adapt to the demands of your newfound mode of transportation to ensure your bodily safety. All of the new behaviors required to drive had to become engrained, to become second nature, to become learned skills. Isn’t this true of making any new change? Eating differently is a learned skill. Meditation and mindfulness are learned skills. Public speaking, exercising, starting a business - all learned skills. NEUROPLASTICITY is how NEW skills become LEARNED skills and can make or break your resolutions this year.
NEURO (pertaining to the nervous system – the brain, spinal cord, and nerves of the body)
*PLASTICITY (meaning malleable, moldable, flexible, and capable of changing form) *
Put the two together and you’ve named the field of brain science that focuses on how the nervous system of the body is capable of learning new things. There’s a saying in this field that “neurons that fire together wire together.” New behaviors require connections to be made in the brain that previously didn’t exist. In keeping with the driving example, new behaviors are to the brain what driving in rush hour traffic in a new city is like – UNFAMILIAR streets, exits and traffic patterns make it much harder to get around than if you were in your own hometown. Some people are so familiar with their usual routes that they can anticipate bumps, turns, or other common patterns that have been learned over time. This is NEUROPLASTICITY in action. In the brain, executing decisions and actions repeatedly is like driving the same route over and over again – it becomes second nature.
While this process doesn’t happen overnight, it is the secret to why change is so hard. The good news is that with this knowledge, you can strategically “stack the deck” in your favor this year by taking advantage of neuroplasticity.
Progress incrementally – learning a new behavior or habit likely requires learning a series of lesser tasks that together make up the big picture. Start slowly by mastering these simpler tasks which are easy for your brain to adapt to. Over time you can build complexity until you own the new behavior.
EX: “I want to finally write a book this year.”
- Start by brainstorming, outlining, formatting. Build the framework (big picture) so that you can fill in the details as your brain learns to be a writer.
“Grease the groove” – remember that neurons that fire together wire together, so fire them often! Even the pros practice fundamental skills often. Don’t expect to make lasting changes by practicing a new behavior or habit “every once and awhile.”
EX: “I want to learn meditation for stress relief this year.”
- i.Don’t wait until you feel stressed to meditate. Commit to five minutes per day and get those neurons firing! Frequent, consistent input makes changes in the brain.
Write it down – physically putting a pen to paper and jotting down your goals and the steps you’ll take to get there is more than motivational. While the accountability aspect is great, you’re using principles of neuroplasticity to involve different regions of the brain in the process. You are recruiting more “brain power” to make the change by involving your visual and motor systems to perform the act of writing.
This year CAN be the year that you make lasting change using NEUROPLASTICITY to your advantage. Like a pimply 16 year-old behind the wheel for the first time, it will be hard at first, but in time your amazing nervous system will adapt and grow to learn this new behavior just as it has many times before.