Our habits shape each day, and our days ultimately make up the sum of our life. Therefore, what we do every day is a cardinal piece of our life’s story and our overall wellbeing. For many years, it was commonly believed that once we grew older that our brain could not change, similar to the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” However, the research on neural plasticity (the ability of our brain cells to change and reorganize) reveals something extraordinarily different. The research on neural plasticity is exciting because it shows that creating new behaviors is possible through all stages of life by rewiring the brain.
Pathways in the brain are made by connections between neurons (nerve cells). When a behavior is performed, the connections between these cells change with the frequency of the behavior performed. These neural pathways are like grooves in the road maps of our brain. The more frequently we travel the road, the stronger and more second nature the behavior. You can practice traveling down “new roads” or neural pathways by performing a new behavior with frequent repetition, connecting new beliefs to support the new behavior, as well as visualizing a positive outcome resulting from these new behaviors.
“Neurons that fire together wire together” – Donald Hebbs
Just because we have created rigid neural pathways and behaviors over many years does not leave us trapped to repeat those habits forever. We can create new pathways by participating in new activities and developing new behaviors. It is important to practice repetition of the new activity to help the pathway become stronger with the greater number of times the brain cells “fire” to conduct the new activity. The wiring together of brain cells makes the new behavior feel routine and easier over time. It requires about 10,000 repetitions — translating to a minimum of three months of practice — to develop a new neural pathway and master a new pattern of behavior. This timeframe can fluctuate, as each brain is unique.
Wiring the brain toward wellness
The good news is that you really can use your brain differently and in a way that creates better behaviors that support wellbeing. That thought is liberating in the fact that just as we can become frustrated with ourselves for repeating habits that are not helpful, we can free ourselves of those repetitions and practice new ones. How many times have we talked negatively to ourselves for overeating or not exercising? The key is to begin the new behavior, repeat it many times, and associate it with as many positive thoughts, sensory experiences, and visualization as possible so that it becomes a new pathway of action and purpose in your brain.
These neural pathways are the foundation of our habits, how we act, in addition to how we think and feel. When we focus on gratefulness and positive thoughts, we strengthen the pathways in our brain to feel “happy,” and the reciprocal is true when we focus on pain and trauma. It is very important, therefore, to be mindful of our thoughts and to practice and strengthen positive thoughts when they arise.
Living in the moment: mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness is a very powerful practice in every dimension of your life (breathing, eating, drinking, speaking, and so many others). The practice of mindfulness is still a growing health and wellness trend. On the federal, state, and local level, it’s been showing up in some surprising places. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security offers employees a resource page focused on Mindfulness Meditation. Practicing mindfulness around habits and making choices instead of living on autopilot — unconsciously taking the well-worn roadmap of our previous actions — is the beginning of making change a reality. Mindfulness is adopting a mindset of intentionality to notice and pay attention to the present moment without judgment. We can practice mindfulness with the simple intention to notice our breath, thoughts, and sensory experiences. Taste each morsel of your food and drink, feel the wind, and hear the sounds around us in the moment.
It becomes a habit to notice and experience our moments with impartiality. Meditation is a form of mindfulness where you relax the body and notice the present moment and your thoughts without judgment. Meditation is a wonderful practice noted to have many health benefits, including improvements in anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and a host of other ailments. There are so many ways in this life to improve wellbeing, and one of the most powerful ways is to take a careful account of your habits and evaluate how they affect your brain, and then exercise your ability to change them and your brain.
Abraham Lincoln said it best, “People are just as happy as they make their minds up to be.” The brain is a wonderful gift. Imagine the possibilities and powerful new ways we can enhance our lives, knowing we each have the ability to shape our brain in ways that create greater wellbeing.