Some days I wish my brain operated like a computer.
Having identified a ‘bug’ (e.g. excessive love of chocolate), I could just write some new software and upload a fix to my brain. The same way my phone or computer gets updates – quick and effortless.
Now the good news is that the brain can re-wire itself (within limits) to adapt to new situations, brain damage or individual efforts at change/learning.
The bad news is that it takes a little more effort than simply uploading some new software.
Knowing and trusting in its existence is an important underlying factor in people’s approach to learning and personal change. If you think your brain is ‘fixed’ then you’ll tend to stick primarily with activities that play to existing strengths (existing abilities). If you think your brain is capable of change and learning, you are more likely to try and practice new activities, to develop new skills.
We see this in therapy as well. Clients who believe their personality is fixed make less effort to actively change themselves and remain distressed. Those who hold out hope that they can shift aspects of their personality are more likely to make changes, experiment with different therapy techniques and show lower rates of future distress.
Let this video with purty graphics convince you:
Neuroplasticity explains why old behaviours can be hard to shift and why new behaviours take time to develop
As I alluded to before, just because the brain can change and adapt, it doesn’t mean it is super easy to do so.
If you think about it, this makes sense.
Your brain’s job is to develop a suitably accurate model of the world around you, in order to keep you alive. So it helps that the brain can adapt to different situations. A lot of this adaptation is done during key developmental periods (e.g. childhood and adolescence).
However you have to remember that survival is key, so the brain, having established patterns of thinking/behaving that are keeping you alive, is reluctant to change this up. As far as it is concerned, the stakes are too high – survive at all costs.
This creates the seemingly contradictory nature of the brain: capable of change, but sometimes reluctant to do so.
For example, brains quickly learn anxiety-avoidance strategies and are reluctant to let them go. Encounter something that scares or freaks you out and your brain initiates an escape response. This is great for avoiding predators or physically dangerous situations, but not so great for getting assignments done or responding to perceived psychological dangers (e.g. embarrassment, rejection etc).
Convincing the brain to update its models of the world usually require repetition. If you want your brain to learn how to hit the perfect forehand in tennis, you are going to need to repeatedly engage in hitting tennis balls with the perfect form for this to happen. If you want your brain to produce less anxiety during exams, you have to frequently expose it to test situations and practise strategies to sit with that anxiety. If you want to learn a new language in adulthood, you’ll have to memorise key phrases and practise using them in real life.
Rarely do we get to escape that particular reality.
Yes we can upgrade our brain, but the process is one of exposure and repetition to the new desired behaviour.
How can you enhance your efforts to make change then?
First, trust in the fact that you can re-wire the brain. You need to be realistic about what you hope to achieve, but the goal of better emotional regulation or increases in productivity or improved study skills or better inter-personal skills are all within reach.
I’m building a mental fitness workbook/program at the moment that will address this exact thing.
In the meantime though I can thoroughly recommend BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits. A great book on how to hack the brain to make lasting changes in your life. BJ has been studying behaviour change for 20+ years at Stanford and his explanation of how it is done is about as refined as it is going to get.
I’ve been reading his book and implementing his ideas in my own life, having made a few tiny habit changes on the basis of his recommendations. Tiny habits work with the brain’s natural quirks to embed new habits and routines in your life.