Cells (neurons) that fire together, wire together.
This is a well know quote from Donald Hebb and his book The Organization of Behaviour. And although this book was published in 1949, the concept of neuroplasticity in adults has only been accepted by science and medicine from the late 1990s. By then it was considered that only young brains can reorganize themselves and grow new brain cells, although there were evidence from the cases of brain damage recovery in adults and in the everyday learning itself. When we learn a new skill or acquire a new knowledge we rewire our brain, and new or stronger pathways between neurons and different brain domains have been created. Simultaneous activation of cells leads to a pronounced increase in synaptic strength between those cells and this is a basis of associative or Hebbian learning.
Neuroplasticity is a brain’s mechanism to adapt itself to the ever-changing environment and it is a second nature of its functioning although we might not be aware of it. Every time we learn a new word, or remember a location of a new store, the new connections in our brain have been acquired. This is especially important because there are certain thinking and behavioural patterns that we developed during our lifetime and that might not serve to our best interest.
Thus, although the mechanism of neuroplasticity has established these patterns as habits and they may be hard to rewire, this is not impossible. We can actually consciously change our habits and dysfunctional behaviours by applying the same mechanism that created them. What is necessary to reverse the unwanted habit? Well, the first thing is that the habit is most probably created unconsciously, but it has had a certain purpose in our lives. For example, we ate too much in order to calm ourselves. However, now it is important to realize that there are other ways to acknowledge unpleasant emotions and to realize how certain events trigger emotions and then dysfunctional behaviours. We can use the following steps to reverse the habit and apply the Hebbian learning proactively:
- Recognize the triggers that activate unpleasant emotions: someone says something you don’t want to hear, an unpleasant memory, seeing others happy in love when you are single and feeling lonely, etc.
- Acknowledge the emotional response that follows the trigger. This step is particularly important because it is usually quite automatic and we try to push it back from our consciousness. By recognising the unpleasant emotion and learning to deal with it by staying present, talking about it, writing in our journal, we acquire more control over the emotional response and decrease the power of anxiety, frustration, sadness, etc.
- Be mindful of the impulsivity of the behaviour that follows: eating, drinking, binge watching TV, procrastination, etc. Stay with the impulse and remember that it is only a learned mechanism and that can be re-learned.
- Develop a new positive and productive behavioural response that will create a positive feedback and activate reward brain circuits. When you finish your homework, job task or when you participate in an interesting conversation, your brain will create a reward response and it will reinforce the desired behaviour.
- Repeat these steps as many times as needed in order to create new pathways in your brain which will allow you to react to the trigger in a new and productive way effortlessly.
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Hebb, D.O. (1949). The Organization of Behavior. New York: Wiley & Sons.
Euliano, Neil R. (1999-12-21). “Neural and Adaptive Systems: Fundamentals Through Simulations” (PDF). Neural and Adaptive Systems: Fundamentals Through Simulations. Wiley. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-12-25. Retrieved 2016-03-16.