Coined nearly 70 years ago by the Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb, this clever phrase reminds us that every experience, thought, feeling, and physical sensation triggers thousands of neurons, forming a neural network. Messages traveling the same pathway in the brain over and over begin to transmit faster. With enough repetition, they become automatic. Regardless of whether the thought is negative or positive, the message follows the same pattern. The smell of corn dogs can quickly flood the mind and body with the youthful excitement of the county fair or it can trigger old deep seated fears of being bullied in the school cafeteria.
We often don’t get the chance to decide when and how these associations will form – we just know that they do. In many instances this “wiring” is a good thing. Normal human development is aided by the firing of neural networks, allowing us to learn, store, and recall information effectively. These pathways help us to make smart decisions that keep us safe. Sometimes we may refer to this experience as a “gut feeling” and at other times it is what drives a quick reaction leading to a flight or fight response.
However, traumatic experiences can disrupt normal brain development leading to extremes in anxiety or difficulty managing emotions. This is why thoughts that feed into depression, anxiety, panic, obsessions, and compulsions, can be so challenging to overcome. But, the good news is that due to something we call neuroplasticity, our amazing brains have the capacity to rewire new pathways! The brain is not only capable of this, but truly designed to do so. And, as the brain is constantly firing and rewiring it is also pruning off old pathways that are no longer relevant or beneficial. The brain seems to have an innate desire to heal itself.
I often compare this process of the brain to a dirt road. When highly used, the road is easy to navigate, with very few obstacles. However, if the dirt road were to become closed off and no longer used, we would quickly begin to see weeds taking over the once nicely groomed ruts on the ground. In time it would become harder to drive down the road and ultimately even impossible to find what was once a road at all. Much like this dirt road, we too can close the metaphorical gate on neural pathways that are outdated or creating problems in our lives. And through new experiences we can begin forming new pathways that lead to healthier responses.
When you think about something differently, learn a new task, or experience a different emotion, you are carving out a new road. If you keep traveling that road, your brain begins to use this pathway more and this becomes a new way of thinking and responding. Feeling and behaving in this new way becomes second nature. The old pathway becomes used less and subsequently it weakens. This process of rewiring your brain by forming new connections and weakening old ones is neuroplasticity in action. One reason why it is so difficult to change the way we think, feel, and behave is that our beliefs and corresponding neural pathways have been formed early in life. They have been reinforced and strengthened, over and over again. In other words, our brain activity has carved out a deep and well traveled road. If that road remains and no new roads are built and strengthened, it is very difficult to change our ways, and we will easily fall back into old patterns.
Creating and strengthening new, positive neural pathways is an essential part of achieving lasting change. The good news is that we all have the ability to learn and change by rewiring our brains. If you have ever changed a bad habit or learned to view a situation or person differently, you have carved a new pathway in your brain, experiencing neuroplasticity firsthand. Some life experiences can create pathways that are highly challenging to reroute on our own and may require the help of a professional. Therapy can provide a safe place for one to look at these deep-seated pathways and offer you an opportunity to reprocess unhelpful learning. This is the beginning of creating new feelings and attitudes around old hurts and fears. With repeated and directed attention towards your desired change, you can effectively rewire your brain to move forward and live a healthy, abundant life.