It’s quite incredible to consider the amazing capacity of your brain, known as plasticity, to grow new neurons on an as needed basis, and to indefinitely renew and restructure itself. In Part I, we considered one way the brain adapts to change by strengthening present behaviors.
In this post we discuss what goes on when you adjust or expand your habits, either consciously or subconsciously. A second way your brain adapts to change is when it:
II. Modifies existing behaviors.
It’s no secret. You have an ability to make big or small adjustments to current behaviors. What does this mean for your brain, however?
- To adapt to modifications, the brain connects existing neurons in new ways.
When you modify an existing behavior, internally, your brain adapts to the adjustment by growing new synaptic terminals. This rewiring allows the neurons associated with the behavior to connect in different ways, adding new connecting pathways between neurons, while also strengthening some of the existing neural connections.
This ability for change makes it easy for you to adjust or expand behaviors in different directions, and to transfer a set of skills learned in one situation to another similar yet perhaps more challenging one. For example:
- The more languages you know, the less effort it takes to learn other languages.
- The mastery of one athletic endeavor, i.e., water skiing, makes it easier to learn a similar one, i.e., snow skiing.
It works, similarly, in expanding your communication and relationship rapport skills.
- Let’s say that, after a series of leadership trainings, followed by several successes in applying what you learned in challenging situations at work, it occurs to you that, perhaps, you could use some of the communication skills at home to iron out a few differences over upcoming vacation plans between you and your partner.
- So you give it try, and, wow, were impressed by the results. You and your partner talked about your options with relative ease, explored new ideas and felt great about the win-win solutions you both agreed on.
The skills you learned in one situation transferred to another, in this case, your personal life, which is inherently more challenging, by the way.
(Note: The ‘relative ease’ you experienced in this case would not likely occur if modifications were applied to a hot button issue between you and your partner. For this, you’d likely need to adapt one or more radically new behaviors; more on this topic discussed in Part III.)
Your brain’s ability to rewire existing behaviors in creative ways and make new connections between neurons, then transfer them to the subconscious part of your mind, doesn’t just stop at helping you better manage the details of your life and hone your skills.
- A potentially awesome capacity for creativity and artistic expression.
Even more awesome, the seemingly infinite processing capacity of your subconscious mind allows you to take an ordinary behavior, and to transform it, if passion energizes you to do so, into an extraordinary work of art. For example:
- If you add gymnastics to the above repertoire of skills, you can expand in limitless directions, i.e., to perform backflips in aerial skiing.
- Once you have learned a skills set, from playing the piano to singing to scrapbooking, the possibilities of how you may artistically express yourself are infinite.
It can start with a simple act of learning how to play an instrument or ski. When your heart and passion get involved at subconscious levels, however, before you know it, you can have thousands or millions of persons buying tickets to your performances or cheering you on to your first gold medal in the Winter Olympics.
To debate whether the conscious or subconscious parts of the mind have grander capacities, however, would be akin to deliberating whether your brain or heart better keep you alive.
It’s more useful to appreciate their distinct strenghs and functions. Perhaps even more importantly, it is critical to understand that what brings out the very best in each is the extent to which they collaborate as a team on your behalf – a process that is largely up to conscious-you to direct and make happen.
As with the first type of change, the second can also be a liability. The same capacity that makes it easy for you to modify skills in creative ways can also expand problem behaviors with similar if not greater ease.
- A problem of angry outbursts at home, for example, can spread and fast turn into a road rage problem.
Alas, your brain’s amazing ability to flexibly apply what you learn to other situations can also be used to broaden the scope of problematic neural patterns. The same processes, it appears, that make possible for you to go from playing ping pong to winning tennis championships in just a few years, can also turn a fear into a social phobia, and absent any intervening variable, potentially in much less time, progress to panic attacks, or even a full blown case of agoraphobia (a debilitating fear of leaving the house).
- What can turn this capability into a liability?
Your brain has two overarching modes, ‘learning’ or ‘protective’ mode, and each produces a dramatically different orientation to learning and change.
In ‘learning’ mode, the subconscious mind is primarily geared to support you to learn to thrive, whereas in ‘protective’ mode, it is focused on ensuring you survive.
In the former, you may say, all the doors of the brain are open to possibility thinking and to creative endeavors; in the latter, the mind can operate more like a prison of locked doors and barriers.
More specifically, this capability can turn into a liability when your perceptions of a situation unnecessarily switch your brain to ‘protective’ mode.
When fear and the activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system come into play, the mind and body are in survival mode. In this mode, the subconscious virtually stops working with the conscious mind. Like a dictator, the subconscious takes over all processes of the body when it perceives danger.
- An example of modifying a problem behavior.
Now let’s say the person with social phobia, an example from Part I, finds themselves at a mall one day when it’s crowded, and they happen to feel a bit stressed in general. As they look around at the sea of faces, they notice a familiar ‘look’ on the face of a passer by, which for them is a ‘trigger.” This activates their sympathetic nervous system, and automatically, a host of fear-inducing thoughts, images, and a certainty, that passers by are judging them as ‘weird’ take over their imagination.
Feeling the intensity of physical sensations inside them, now their thoughts and fears expand in new directions, such as:
- What if someone notices my nervousness?
- What if I get so nervous that I lose control?
- What would they think of me if they knew?
- How embarrassing that would be!
This pattern of thoughts is typical of ones that lead panic attacks. Not surprisingly, they may experience their first panic attack.
Now let’s say that, in response to this panic attack, the person flees the mall. Once at home, they decide that, in the future, they will avoid the mall when it’s ‘crowded’ and only go during morning hours. On one of these early morning mall visits, however, they experience another panic attack. The trigger this time was a ‘look’ on the face of a sales clerk, though they were not likely aware of this, as this occurred subconsciously.
As a result, they now decide to avoid further ’embarrassment’ by avoiding malls altogether. As you may guess, avoiding what makes them feel uncomfortable merely exacerbates the problem.
If they continue on this track, it is possible for the person to (subconsciously) condition their brain to associate all “shopping” venues with danger. Eventually, this can then spread to avoiding all “open spaces” or being “away from home.” At some point, unless this person makes a conscious effort to stop fear from controlling their life, they may no longer be able to even work in their own garden or sit on their porch, to do things they once loved, without feeling panicky.
This is known as agoraphobia, a fear of being outside in the open or away from home.
What really happened – a matter of perception?
For one, the strategy of coping with social anxiety by fleeing or avoiding certain situations backfired.
The same mechanism that kindles old memories when our ears tune into a song, or our noses pick up certain smell, is the same one that subconsciously primed this person’s panic attacks to where they went off like a false alarm at the drop of a hat.
Their ‘problem’ of anxiety in social situations became larger than life. The real problem, however, was never social gatherings or malls. The problem was the person’s perception of problem, as well as their solutions.
Their perceptions formed their thoughts, beliefs, sensation, emotions and images, and also produced the desperate attempts to flee or avoid situations that, truthfully, were never real threats. The real problem was related to their perception of:
- Social gatherings as threats and danger.
- The certainty of their beliefs that others are judging them harshly.
- The value and right they give to others to judge them.
- What it means to have painful emotions and sensations.
- The usefulness of fleeing or avoidance strategies as ‘solutions.’
These combined to form the real problem. Their perception of the problem was the real problem.
Unknowingly, this person allowed their perceptions to turn their mind into a prison of locked doors, barriers and barbed wire.
A collaborative effort in mind?
Your brain’s ability for adapting to change is amazing. Alas, the capability to flexibly apply what you learn to other situations can also broaden the scope of problematic neural patterns.
The capacity for adaptation, however, doesn’t have to turn into a liability that unnecessarily switches your brain to survival mode – not if you are prepared to take the reins in learning how to optimally operate your brain, to grow your awareness of what goes on inside your mind (and body), and to understand the power of conscious, present moment choices in living your life at its best.
Your conscious participation in life is essential, for several excellent reasons.
- The subconscious does no real thinking of its own.
In most cases, it completely depends on your perceptions to interpret the environment around you. It cannot understand the difference, for example, between pain that poses a real danger, such a fire or drugs, and pain that is there to grow and enrich your life, such as growing your capacity to regulate your emotions, and getting comfortable with what is uncomfortable, all of which are painful processes, yet they grow the courage you need to face the inevitable challenges of life.
- To interpret the world around you, your subconscious eavesdrops on your thoughts or self-talk.
Your thoughts reflect your beliefs. They are your own unique responses to the events or persons in your life. Accordingly, they shape your actions. Your thoughts or interpretations about your experiences, once “accepted” by your body are integrated to become part of subconscious processes.
- It cannot distinguish between helpful or unhelpful perceptions. It remains neutral.
It automatically strengthens the neural pathways you most use, and weakens ones you use less or stop using altogether. A
- The subconscious doesn’t discern between past or present; it only understands now.
It has accrued a vast pool of data from time you were born; and, if activated by some trigger, it treats beliefs you formed when you were five, particularly ones related to core fears, as the daily news report.
It is no wonder that neuroscientist Antonio Damasio said the following in a recent publication, “Our knowledge base is implicit, encrypted, and unconscious.”
And this is part of the problem; your conscious mind has relinquished too much processing to your subconscious mind, without first sorting through it to make command decisions on what to keep, what to revise and what to toss away!
There are real solutions, however. They involve:
- Making conscious what is subconscious, especially limiting thoughts, beliefs and other protective strategies.
- Practicing methods such as meditation that help the conscious and subconscious to work collaboratively.
- Replacing toxic thinking and behavior patterns with ones that transform fears into assets such as courage and confidence.
The subconscious part of your mind, it appears, depends on the conscious part to lead the way out of old strongholds of fear. Your conscious mind, in turn, relies on the subconscious, with its limitless processing capabilities, to grow and learn and creatively expand your access to miracle-making resources inside.
Optimally, the conscious and subconscious mind are designed to work together, to help you both survive and thrive to find purpose and meaning in the context of your relationships with self and other and life itself.
It will mean adopting a conscious lifestyle. Meaning?
To live consciously, for one, is to set an intention to feel feelings and felt sensations within yourself at very deep levels, not for the purpose to vent or wallow, rather to understand, to heal and to transform. To transform means to go beyond the present form, and in this case it means to be open to embracing a few new behaviors. More than other types of change, your brain resists totally new behaviors as they (can) cause proportionally more discomfort inside.
It’s worth it, if it enriches your life, however, and it’s up to conscious-you to make it happen.
More on this in the next post, Part 3.