Friday, June 25, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The good news is your brain makes physical changes based on the repetitive things you do and experiences you have in your life. The bad news is your brain makes physical changes based on the repetitive things you do and experiences you have in your life. This works both ways…for you and against you.

Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its own structure and function through thought and activity, is an amazing, empowering truth of the last decade. It has implications and possibilities in almost every aspect of human life and culture. This same characteristic also makes the brain very vulnerable to outside and internal, usually unconscious, influences. Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself refers to this as “the plastic paradox.”

Think about it. The brain actually wires itself and forms neuronal connections based on what you do repeatedly in your life. Vegging out on TV. Getting a sugar fix. Sipping a soda. Drinking the morning cup of joe. Fixing a drink to unwind after work. Smoking cigarettes. Burning a joint to take the edge off. Having a hit of harder stuff. Biting fingernails. I could go on and on. We call them bad habits or addictions. They become wired into your brain.

Not all addictions are to substances. An addiction is any compulsive habit. People can be addicted to anything…exercise, facebook, pornography, shoes, negative self talk. All addiction involves neuroplastic changes in the brain. A person (addict sounds too hard core here, but that is what we are talking about) experiences cravings because their plastic brain has become sensitized to the substance or experience.

When the craving is satisfied, dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitter, is released. Dopamine is an essential component of neuroplasticity. The same shot of dopamine that makes someone happy also assists in making neuronal connections.

When someone kicks the habit – whatever the habit is, the addictive neuronal circuits in the brain become weaker and less active over time without the reinforcement of the behavior, but they are still in place. Alcoholics Anonymous insists that there are no “former alcoholics.” They are right! The pathways are still there and can easily be reactivated.

Recent research shows that it takes 66 days to make a new habit automatic. I could not find any definitive information about the time frame required to deactivate a habitual brain circuit. However, I would guess it is about the same as they are simultaneous processes and one is dependent on the other. Unlearning involves weakening connections between neurons through disuse and is just as plastic a process.

The same neuroplasticity that allows us to amazingly alter our brain and reality by implementing healthy, good for you habits conversely allows not so good habits to be unconsciously carved in the brain in the first place. What are you etching into your brain? This is one area in which you can really make a conscious choice and change yourself and your life. It is a use or lose it brain. Use it for you.

1 comment:

  1. And there are tools to help people break the habit when desire occurs and minimize the addiction. Great article.