Over the last few weeks I’ve been writing about the different aspects of change that I think are important to keep in mind whenever we decide to make meaningful shifts in our lives. The purpose of today’s post is to acknowledge the slow nature of creating lasting change by describing how new habits and patterns are formed in the brain.
I think the reality of the slow nature of change tends to be the most discouraging aspect of change and often times what leads us to give up on our goals and ourselves. We tend to have a goal in mind, something we want to achieve, and we want to have achieved it yesterday!
I could get into a long, complicated description of how the brain registers behavior and how on a cellular level habits are formed, but I will spare you the boring details. Suffice it to say that habits do get patterned in our brains through a very intricate system of neural pathways, whether or not we are conscious of learning.
What’s important to remember in terms of creating change is that the more we do something (thinking, feeling, or behaving), the stronger the neural pathway grows. The less frequently we do something, the weaker the pathway. If we stop doing something entirely, eventually that neural pathway will wither away.
What’s so interesting about how the brain works, is that it’s not judging what is “good” or “bad” for us. It works just like a sponge, soaking up what it hears, sees, and feels and squeezing it into our memory bank. Whether we reinforce “good” habits by practicing healthy behaviors or we reinforce “bad” habits by practicing old, unhealthy behaviors the brain just keeps establishing neural pathways. Think of the brain as a nondiscriminatory, equal opportunity neural pathway builder! So when we put off tasks we don’t want to do, lie to ourselves, or engage in negative self-talk, the brain lays down tracks, creating patterns and habits of procrastination, denial, and self-criticism. With every repetition, the thought, feeling, or behavior gets reinforced.
A useful image to help illustrate this concept of change is to picture a hill of damp sand with a marble on top. If you give the marble a nudge in one direction, it will roll down the hill, creating a slight groove in the sand on its way down. Each time the marble gets nudged in the same direction, it will slide into that groove and that groove will deepen until, eventually, you will only have to place the marble at the top of the hill for it to automatically fall into that groove and slide down the hill.
Now let’s imagine that you decide you want the marble to slide down the other side of the hill. You’re going to have to place the marble on the top of the hill and push it in the other direction because if you don’t it will just automatically slip into its old, familiar groove. If you push it only once or twice, its inclination will still be to return to its old groove. For a little while you’re going to need to push the marble in the new direction over and over again until a new groove is formed. Eventually, we get to a place where the old groove and the new groove are about evenly formed and the marble has potential to go either way. To make sure that it will always go in the new direction, you have to keep gently nudging it until that old groove gets filled up with sand and the new groove is very deeply carved. Then the marble will naturally fall into the new groove every time.
To simply translate the marble analogy, we have to repeat a new behavior more often than an old behavior in order to have the new one become a habit and the old one disappear. Why is this so difficult for most of us? Most of us are not linear learners and we don’t just go straight from point A to point B. We try a new way, revert back to the old way for awhile, then tentatively try the new way again. We’re inconsistent, then we wonder why we’re not changing quickly enough, after all of our hard work!!
When we try a new behavior, or way of thinking, then return to an old action or thought we’re preventing ourselves from changing because we’re reinforcing both the new and the the old, essentially achieving a behavioral draw. If we think about the marble on the top of the sand hill and sometimes we pushed it one way and sometimes we pushed it the other way, the grooves would stay about even, right? Every time we revert to an old behavior, we’re deepening the first groove, while every time we push ourselves to practice the new behavior, we’re not only carving the new groove deeper, we’re also giving the old groove an opportunity to be filled-up with sand. If we are willing to continue pressing onward with the new changes, that original neural pathway that elicited the old behaviors and ways of being will eventually fade away.
It doesn’t happen over night. The fact is most of us spent many years developing our current attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors but if we are willing to find patience and consistently keep trudging along a new path, eventually we will get to a point where these new ways of being are automatic.