Just like a home, your brain can be remodeled. The term ‘brain plasticity’ refers to the brain’s ability to adapt – adding, deleting and modifying connections in a variety of ways. This ability helps to ensure the survival of the individual, as well as the human species.
Neurons are the cellular building blocks of the brain’s communication system. Via signaling networks, neurons bring movement to the human body and send messages back to the brain. A substance called myelin surrounds neurons and serves to speed up and strengthen signals being sent between neurons. Neuronal signaling networks play a large part in our current lifestyle.
Habitual Activation Strengthens Patterns
Repeated activation of a neuron signals the brain to make more myelin for that structure, resulting in stronger connections. This is why the start of a dance or yoga class can feel disjointed and awkward, but starts to feel natural after 6 weeks of practice. This is also why a lifetime of sedentary or unhealthy habits are so hard to change – the neuronal patterning has been strengthened year after year. You may be literally wired to sit on your butt and watch TV while munching on Cheetos!
You can in fact re-wire bad habits. No it is not as easy as developing them in the first place. When we are young, a lack of previous habits means that things we learn (and repeat) are simply encoded into our brain. So look back at your childhood patterns to get an idea of how strong those neuronal connections may be!
Efforts to re-map the brain’s connections require that it be primed, challenged, consistent, and supported. However difficult, the evidence is plentiful demonstrating the brain’s ability to rewire in cases of direct brain injury, trauma to the limbs, neurodegenerative conditions, and even psychological disturbances such as depression.
Is Your Brain Primed for Re-wire?
Your physical health will impact your brain’s ability to make big lifestyle changes. The brain needs nutrition, rest, and hydration to function optimally, so those may be your first stepping stones. When the mechanisms within the body are functional, the brain is able to apply it’s effort elsewhere.
Are You Providing a Challenge?
Yes, I know, even the IDEA of lifestyle change is challenging! However, your efforts must also provide sufficient challenge for your brain in order for new neuronal connections to be made. The brain is wired to be lazy – to take the path of least resistance. After all, it has a huge task of running all the systems in your body. Requiring focused attention of the brain to perform strategizing and problem solving tasks will help it develop the discipline and motivation needed to succeed at long lasting change.
Are You Consistent?
Brain change doesn’t happen overnight, and it may not even happen 21 days, like many popular systems boast.
Neuroscientist Tara Swart claims “Depending on the complexity of the activity, [experiments have required] four and a half months, 144 days or even three months for a new brain map, equal in complexity to an old one, to be created in the motor cortex.”
So spend time developing a plan for your lifestyle change, and then spend time practicing it. Oh, and one more thing. Don’t half-ass it.
Have you heard the saying ‘practice makes perfect’? Let’s take a moment to remember that anything repeated over and over again will be ingrained more deeply into the brain. If we practice with poor posture, poor focus, poor movement patterns, etc., those will also be strengthened!! Ever wonder why you always go 1.5 weeks on your diet and then fall off the wagon? You’ve practice that pattern.
Getting specific, proper practice makes perfect over time. Don’t rush it.
Do you have Support?
This is hard work, and it must be done in a supportive environment. If your job, family, and friends are constantly bombarding your brain with stress or temptation, it is going to be pretty hard to stick to your long term plan. So put some of that brain challenge toward strategizing ways that your environment can support you throughout your journey of change.
Lifestyle habits are some of the most difficult to alter, but it can be done. Despite what you might be thinking, your age doesn’t necessarily matter either. If you need more convincing, check out this TED Talk on growing new brain cells. You got this.