Neural Plasticity

There is hope for you. No matter how long you have had the habit it is possible to break out of it. My own addiction to sugar is a case in point. Your habit of thinking the worse of every statement a rival political party makes is a case in point. Literally, every thought, habit and practice that has become an automatic part of your mind’s daily activity can be modified by conscious practice on your part.

It doesn’t matter what the habit is, how long you have had it, what the substance is–sugar, tobacco, heroin–it is possible to get out of it without rehab time, psychoanalysis or hypnosis. Your brain is actually constructed in such a way that habits are easily formed, and not so easily re-formed.

A recent development in neural science technology is allowing brain geniuses to map the highways in use in the living brain. This morning in the online magazine Salon.Com there is a long article on the functionality of the developing brain. And there is this sentence:

Plasticity is the brain’s lifelong capacity to form new synapses, connections between nerve cells, and even new neural pathways, making and strengthening connections so that learning accelerates and the ability to access and apply what has been learned becomes more and more efficient.

Your normal brain has the lifelong ability to change the pathways that it takes when presented with a stimulus. You don’t have to think compulsive thoughts, compulsive thoughts are a feature of a normally functioning brain. I just read a great book on addiction, and a big feature of it was the discussion of neural plasticity. Your addiction is built by it, your future life will be consumed by consciously changing your brain back, getting rid of bad habits is that process. Here is the book I just read:

The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease

If neural plasticity is a normal function of the brain, and if addiction is not a disease, then you don’t really need a doctor to help you out of the hole you are in. Overeater’s Anonymous is then a great place to meet people on the same journey you are on, but you don’t need to admit to being an addict. You are not an addict. An addict is not a person that can only be helped by medicine, doctors, isolation. Shame is not a cure for addiction, nor is shunning by family members. You are not enabling the addict if you continue to love them through their journey toward life after addiction.

As infants your brain is a very simple thing, and all it is doing is forming habits. At that stage of life you are learning things that you must do without conscious thought–which is good because you cannot have a conscious thought at that stage of life. You are learning to eat, to crawl, to stand, to cry. Standing and sitting are very good examples of things that you learn to do by habit.

By the time you are able to actually form a memory, you already have a brain filled with habits. Walking down stairs is a habit. The only time you might have a conscious thought when walking down stairs is if there is something wrong with the stairs. A missing step or the end of the staircase before you expect it is a sudden change from habitual thought to conscious thought. We all know that feeling, too. You are startled into the present by a missing step, and that is what the difference between having a habitual thought and having a conscious thought feels like.

When you decide to make a change in your life you will have a period of time where you will have the feeling many times per day of conscious instead of habitual thought.  When I decided to quit eating carbohydrates I began to have conscious habit-changing thoughts at all parts of my day. At breakfast I had to build the habit of eating it instead of skipping it. Each morning from taking the omelet pan down and getting the bacon to putting the breakfast dishes away is a new habit. When I am at the grocery I have to exercise new habits. My old habit was to travel up and down each and every aisle so that I would not have to remember things to buy. Seeing them was a visual cue. Walking every aisle though gave my existing eating habits lots of triggers. When I stopped walking every aisle and began to just walk the perimeter of the store then things I didn’t need to be eating quit showing up at my house when I was putting the groceries away.

A person that is changing a major habit must be mindful every moment of the day at the beginning. Addictive and compulsive thoughts are very powerful. The processes that they use are automatic and a person must be very vigilant to keep from repeating behaviors that lead to destructive outcomes. Repetition is how we learn–good habits and bad. Constantly looking in the refrigerator is an example of a habit that triggers a habit. A smoker constantly touching their cigarette pack is a good example.

Addictions involve rituals. Constantly checking your cel phone to see if you dealer has a supply of your drug to sell is a ritual that reinforces the bad habit. Bad habits come with hundreds of daily rituals that help to establish the behavior at first, and then become automatic and then compulsive. Compulsive thoughts and behaviors are the final stage of addictive practices.

The good news is that your brain, while being changed by your addiction can be changed, through the same mechanisms back into a brain that does not support a bad habit. Breaking habits is the same no matter what the habit is. When you quit biting your nails you used the same exact brain to do it that you will use to quit eating habitually. You will train yourself in the same way. Just realizing that you are having a compulsive thought begins the process. Feeling what it is like to have a competing thought is a part of the process.

For children it seems to us that the process of learning is easy and automatic. Of course, it is not. It is 24 hour a day work, just like it is for us still. Children sleep a lot because it is such hard work. You may even feel fatigued if you are changing a nasty habit, because it is work to learn, and you are learning.

If you are an addict you are not defective. There is no reason for you to feel less than any other person in your circle. They all have habits, too. All you need to do to be the same as the best of your friends is retrain yourself to new habits. You might need to move to a new neighborhood, you might need a new job–or a job. A change of scenery can really be helpful. Vietnam soldiers were getting addicted to heroin, but when they came home they stopped just as suddenly. None of the triggers for using were there.

Find a way to change your triggers, think about them differently. Take advantage of the plasticity of your brain–it’s a feature, not a bug.

About dcarmack

I am an instrument technician at the electric utility servicing the Kansas City Missouri metropolitan area. I am in the IBEW, Local 412. I was trained to be a nuclear power plant operator in the USN and served on submarines. I am a Democrat, even more so than those serving in Congress or the White House.
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