The study of the nervous system of the brain and body – the field of neuroscience – is increasingly going mainstream.
More and more, what’s on the minds of an increasing number of people is … their own mind.
Among the most amazing discovery is plasticity, a remarkable capacity that allows the brain to generate new neurons all the time, according to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, and to renew and to reorganize its basic structure of neurons indefinitely.
In this series of posts, we’ll consider 3 basic ways in which your brain regularly adapts to change. The more you get to know your brain, the more you understand the ability you have to inspire optimal behaviors in yourself and others, and to direct changes to limiting patterns. Believe it or not, you come fully equipped to wisely and effectively address the inherent challenges of life.
What types of changes does your brain adapt?
The brain adapts to three basic types of change. Essentially, it: (I) strengthens current behaviors; (II) expands or modifies existing behavior patterns; and (III) accommodates completely new behaviors.
In this post we’ll consider the first type of change on the list.
I. Strengthens existing behaviors.
One way your brain adapts to change is to strengthen the current connections of neurons involved in performing an existing behavior.
When you repeat a behavior, such as skiing or playing the piano, certain areas of your brain light up, emitting strong electrical-chemical signals as neurons “fire and wire” together. The electrical signals indicate neurons are strengthening or “thickening” the neural pathways associated with the behavior, and as they do, they exchange messages in the form of chemical and electrical signals at synapses that connect their pathways.
In effect, each time a behavior is repeated, this reinforces (thickens) the pathways that connect the neurons, and by doing so, makes it more likely that the behavior will reoccur (“fire and wire”) in the future.
- When the brain adapts to a behavior, it is then performed subconsciously.
When you practice a behavior, your brain increasingly performs it with less and less conscious thought, and in many cases, eventually little or no “conscious” thought. Once you “learn” a skills set, the processes involved in performing the behavior become integrated. This means your brain transfers them from your conscious mind to your subconscious mind, more or less, what science often labels short-term and long-term memory.
In other words, when you’ve mastered a behavior, such as driving a car or learning how to ski or surf, for example, most of the minute details of the behavior are managed by your subconscious. As you can imagine, this ability to perform a skill subconsciously is a huge asset. How?
- It allows you to perform a behavior more easily and efficiently with increasingly less energy waste, and in some cases more safely (i.e., driving a car).
- It keeps a running memory of what you learn about a behavior so that you can keep building on what you’ve learned with each practice experience.
- It makes possible for you to increasingly sharpen, enhance, upgrade, hone and refine a behavior in limitless ways.
Ideally, the conscious and subconscious parts of your mind work together cooperatively, in any given moment, to maximize the distinct strengths of each, and they are both on the same page with regard to ‘what’ promotes your highest good and happiness, especially whether your interests are best served by your brain being in learning mode or in protective mode. These are ingredients that produce extraordinary results.
Your brain has access to the seemingly limitless storage capacity of your subconscious mind, to do what it does best, such as to deepen and to integrate learning at increasingly higher levels of complexity.
The transfer of processing to the subconscious, meanwhile, frees your conscious mind, which in comparison has only a tiny storage capacity, to do what it does best, such as to pay attention, to see things anew, to learn new skills, to formulate wants and goals, to execute plans, to make informed choices, to assess effectiveness, and so on.
- This asset can also be a liability.
Alas, similar processes are at work when the brain adapts to patterns that are harmful. Left to operate on their own, apart from conscious awareness, these dynamic processes can adapt problem behaviors and automatically transfer them to the subconscious, where they operate seemingly on their own.
Thus, some circumstances turn this asset into a liability.
The same firing and wiring of neurons and their exchanges of electric-chemical messages can move you in the opposite direction to adapt unhealthy and problematic patterns, such as anger outbursts, phobias, depression, anxiety, addictions, compulsions, and so on.
It has to do with how the brain is hard-wired to gravitate toward what produces feel-good feelings for you (physically, emotionally, etc.), and to move away from what does not.
- When the subconscious part of your mind is left in charge of this decision making, this can cause problems because the subconscious does no “real” thinking of its own!
It cannot discern, for example,, between healthy feel-goods, i.e., an embrace with someone you love, and unhealthy ones, i.e., drugs or junk food. Similarly, it cannot distinguish between pain that is healthy to avoid, i.e., sunburn or the aftermath of an angry outburst, and ‘pain’ that enriches your life, i.e., exercise, eating healthful foods, or practicing your communication skills.
- The standards of what pleases or displeases you are set by your thoughts, conscious or subconscious.
Your thoughts are in turn rooted in your beliefs, and together they form your perception of events, which your subconscious relies on to interpret your experience. Notably, you practice an average of about 60,000 thoughts a day. How many are you conscious of?
- Your subconscious likely ‘knows’ you more intimately than you know yourself.
And therein lies the problem. A portion of your thoughts, which you are not aware of consciously, are sending mixed or misguided signals to your subconscious.
Literally, your beliefs can trick your subconscious to activate your customized strategies for protecting yourself, i.e., a reactive set of thoughts, feelings, actions, etc., to help you “deal” with what upsets or triggers your survival fears. Since these strategies ‘work’ to reduce or lower anxiety, your subconscious mind has classified them as quick, proven and reliable methods that ‘work’ to reduce anxiety levels.
Is it any wonder then that certain behaviors are resistant to change?
The point is this. Your subconscious mind, by default, is adept at taking over any processing (it ‘thinks’) you cannot handle or simply refuse to (based on its interpretation of your thoughts). It did so when you were an infant or a small child. The question is do you want you want to waste the vast resources of your subconscious in the role of a hyper-protective parent?
- An example of a problem behavior.
Let’s take social anxiety, for example. It can be thought of as a behavioral pattern that has been repeatedly “strengthened” over time (often with roots in early childhood). Certain toxic thought patterns, ones that unnecessarily activate the body’s survival system, have shaped these emotional-behavioral reactions.
The overarching fear of a person with social anxiety is being the center of negative attention, i.e., ridicule, embarrassment, etc.
In social situation, they typically have worrisome thoughts that repeatedly tell them they are being judged by others as “weird” or “not capable,” and so on.
Naturally, this thinking pattern signals ‘danger’ to their body’s survival system, which the subconscious takes quite seriously. Its primary directive, after all, is to ensure survival. Thus, the brain automatically activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system to prepare the person to make a quick decision to either “fight or flee” the threat, and have the physical strength to do so.
The release of hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, causes dynamic changes in the energies of the body. For example:
- Blood pressure increases and breathing speeds up in preparation for for muscular activity.
- Blood is directed away from normal processes such as digestion to the major muscle groups, again, in preparing the body to physically fight or flee. (This explains why people who worry a lot often have digestive problems; they do not have enough blood in the stomach area.)
- Legs shake in preparation for running; hands and arms shake gearing up to fight.
- Palms and feet become sweaty to provide a better grip if needed.
- Pupils dilate to let in more light, to have more information about the situation.
In an instant, the purpose of the body and mind shifts from a seeking-to-learn-and-thrive mode to a seeking-to-survive mode, from an overarching emotional state of love or fear.
Note that, all these bodily reactions have survival value in situations of ‘real’ danger, such as an actual attack. In social anxiety, however, the brain is merely tricked into associating social situations with danger. In truth, most all of this energy is a waste! All one ‘needs’ in a social situation is a slight increase in cortisol (low level stress) to help them be at their best.
Instead, their subconscious mind interprets the situation as dangerous, and automatically looks for tried and true ‘solutions.’
Where social anxiety is concerned, ‘the solution’ is most always a form of ‘fleeing’ the situation. The brain has adapted behavior skills that offer a quick-fix way of solving ‘the problem’; it however, quickly becomes a real problem, a costly one.
How is the learned solution a costly problem?
- With every repetition, the intensity of these physical sensations adds certainty that their assumptions about others are ‘true’ and the threat is ‘real.’
- Avoidance as a coping mechanism blocks them (and their brain) from learning how to effectively regulate their emotions and behavioral responses.
- The reactivity tends to increase over time, and can impair their ability to function in one or more areas of their life.
Let’s say, for example, this person starts to regularly solve their ‘problem’ (anxiety in social situations) by leaving any social gatherings whenever they start to feel anxious, and going to great lengths to avoid themwhere possible. Subconsciously, without realizing it, their brain is strengthening the pathways that:
- Associate social gatherings with danger, and uncomfortable feelings rooted in anxiety.
- Adapt fleeing or avoiding uncomfortable situations as ‘solutions’ to reduce the anxiety the person feels in response to perceived threats.
- Produce automatic reactions to social situations (i.e., thoughts, images, feelings, actions, etc.) that are protective in nature.
The more the person ‘practices’ these reactions, just like playing a piano, the ‘better’ they get at ‘doing’ their social anxiety. To the extent these protective strategies become a habitual response, they become a problem that blocks the person from living a normal life. At some point, if this problem impairs normal life, it is no longer social anxiety, and rather a problem of social phobia.
The person’s fear-inducing thoughts and fear-avoiding behavioral strategies are training their brain to strengthen costly neural patterns. The ultimate cost of adapting rigid protective strategies is that they keep the person stuck in fear mode, block learning and resist change.
For now, what’s on your mind?
Hopefully, it is an increased confidence in your ability to make conscious change, and to direct certain processes involved in the flow of information that produce change.
When it comes to facing a real danger or enhancing a particular skill set, in most cases, it is most desirable for the subconscious mind to perform most processing automatically. In the case of problem behaviors, however, you want to remain as consciously aware and in charge of making informed choices, to engage directly in making changes to any limiting subconscious patterns, likely at the root of the problem.
Your subconscious is always willing, as long as conscious you uses the keys that unlock barriers of fear, and allow these two formidable forces of the human mind, the conscious and subconscious, to work cooperatively in your behalf.
In the next post, part II.
Damasio, Antonio (2010). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. NY: Pantheon Books.