A question of change
Can people change or “Are we wasting our time with all these efforts to change ourselves, or is it really possible?”
I was asked this last week during one of my mammal-brain zoo tours. I had just explained neuroplasticity, and the limits of neuroplasticity. Perhaps it didn’t sound very positive.
My answer was “yes, but.” That’s not what people like to hear, and there was little time to elaborate. I was eager to address this conundrum more fully when I got home. So here is a little positive guide to neuroplasticity: the YES, and the BUT. You can see that the “BUTs” are numerous, but the YES still prevails. Nothing valuable comes easy.
You change if you repeat a new behavior over and over because a new neural pathway will build.
- Your old pathways will still be there.
- Your old pathways are bigger and stronger than the new ones because they had years to build up.
- Myelin dips after puberty, so your new pathway will not get paved into a super-highway in your brain.
- Old pathways make you feel safe and strong, so resisting them leaves you feeling weak and vulnerable.
- New pathways require a big investment of energy, leaving you less energy to spend in other ways.
- We all know that change is hard but it helps to know why it’s hard:
The electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. You were born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. You built your neural pathways in youth. You may think you have shed the pathways of youth, but that’s not an option because your brain was full of myelin then. Before age seven and during puberty, the pathways you stimulated got myelinated, making them the superhighways of your brain.
A new slate?
You may wish to wipe the slate clean and start over, but the mammal brain is designed to build it’s operating system in youth. That’s a big step forward over reptiles, who are born pre-wired with the operating system of their ancestors. The bigger a mammal’s brain, the longer its childhood, because it takes time to build a brain from life experience.
We humans have a far longer childhood than any creature in nature. We are not designed to throw away those early circuits that millions of years of evolution gave us the power to build. But we can build new leaves on our neural trees, and graft a new branch onto an old branch. We can change, if we understand your brain and work with it!
About the Author: Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people re-wire their brain chemistry naturally. InnerMammalInstitute.org. She’s the author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels, Beyond Cynical, and I, Mammal. Dr. Breuning is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay.