Historically, science and the field of medicine have viewed the brain as a hardwired organ. Once it learns something, that’s it, and over time, the learning slowly deteriorates with aging having an effect on human ability.
However, in the 1960’s and the 1970’s that idea began to change. Instead, a new vision of the brain revealed itself, one that sees the brain as being plastic or flexible. And this has to do with growing new neural connections in the brain. Research points to the brain’s ability to rewire itself and form new and different connections. In brain research, those connections are called neurons. Hence, the term neuro-plasticity.
Choosing the Right Track
In his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Dodge includes a metaphor originally created by neuroscientist, Alvaro Pascual-Leone. The brain could be compared to a snowy hill in winter. When we go down the hill on a sled, we can be flexible the first time because we have the option of taking different paths through the soft snow. However, as we continue to choose the same path the second time or the third time, tracks will start to develop, and these tracks become really easy and efficient at guiding the sled down the hill. It doesn’t take long to begin to limit our choices to the one track that we have been taking again and again. In this sense, it is literally like getting stuck in a rut, following the same worn out path again and again. And taking a different path becomes increasingly difficult.
A real life example is when a person learns that bingeing and purging temporarily numbs anxiety. By choosing to binge again and again in order to minimize anxiety, a well-worn path develops. Over time, it becomes very difficult to change the course of one’s thoughts and behaviors. Bingeing and purging can easily become the only choice because it appears that nothing else works. The same process is happening when your self-talk is consistently self-defeating or when you go into panic mode in social situations and a social phobia develops.
Strengthening the Neurons in the Brain
When we make the same choice again and again, we strengthen the neurons in the brain. Neurons are involved in these mental and behavioral patterns and continue to strengthen each time the same choice is made. In other words, each time we go down that same path in the snow.
But, thanks to the brain’s wondrous capacity for learning and rewiring itself – neuroplasticity – it’s not impossible to change our patterns regardless of how worn out those paths down the hill become. In the case of addiction, another example is this: Let’s say a woman begins to feel panic before going to work and in stressful situations. As a way to cope, she begins to take Vicodin each morning and whenever she feels anxiety. By doing so, she is creating a groove in her mind, a neural connection, between feeling anxiety and taking drugs. Pretty soon, this will be the only way in which she can manage her anxiety. Yet, more importantly, this so-called coping mechanism can easily spin out of control and might make her life difficult.
Neuroplasticity Rewiring the Brain During Recovery
The benefit of neuroplasticity is the ability to rewire the brain and slowly make new choices. It’s the ability for the brain to make new neural connections so that when a woman is addicted to the painkiller Vicodin, she can make a different choice when anxious. Instead of reaching for drugs, she takes a deep breath or she schedules a yoga class.
This is why paying close attention to your present circumstances is so important, versus unconsciously making similar choices to those made in the past. What helps is staying keenly aware of what you are doing while you are doing it in order to facilitate finding a different path through the snow. Carrying out new choices and creating new patterns that are positive and healthy may be challenging at the start. However, with practice, those positive habits can become habitual. Finding and creating new worn-out paths (healthier ones!) is neuroplasticity in action.
Now, the truth is that there is often a lot to the process of recovery. Rewiring the brain is one part – albeit an important part – of getting sober, along with unraveling deep seated and destructive beliefs, perhaps healing from childhood trauma, finally letting go of repressed emotions, learning new coping mechanisms, and more. Yet, within the process of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual healing, is the opportunity to rewire the brain.
And over time, as you continue to make new choices, and as you create new paths in the snow, you can slowly create a life that is happy, successful, and fulfilling.