Create new neural pathways to benefit your life
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
This is an exciting time in science with research and rapid advances in the study of Neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to regenerate cells and rearrange neural connections.
The ramifications are broad, particularly in studies of brain injury, health conditions, learning, and everyday life experiences, where our brains can ‘rewire’ to adapt to new situations. This occurs daily naturally, but it’s something we can activate and reinforce.
Have you ever noticed when you drive to work or somewhere familiar that you tend to go the same way, even if there are alternate routes you could go? This is because you have created a neural pathway in your brain that has created this routine.
Sometimes we drive to this destination on ‘remote control’ as such. If I’m driving somewhere routinely I might decide to take a different route, and if I continue to use the new route, a new pattern occurs and I drive that way all the time. This has become my new neural pathway.
It’s similar to how water in a river flows in the same direction as the initial route, but if blocked a detour is created which eventually becomes permanent.
Our brains can do the same. In some cases, when part of the brain is damaged, a new neural pathway is created that will eventually give out the same signals as the original damaged area.
This usually only happens if another pathway is first stimulated to activate this pathway. Unfortunately at this time, science hasn’t worked out which parts to stimulate for paraplegics and quadriplegics to move again.
Changing routines and doing things differently will promote different pathways. There have been many times when stroke victims have lost function of speech or certain movements, only to find that activity based therapies and stimulation using specialised techniques helps them to regain function over time.
Another example is a person who has ceased bowel function through paralysis, but has been known to evacuate normally after many colonics have ‘retrained’ neurons to activate the release.
How is a neural pathway created?
Neurons are nerve cells that transmit nerve signals to and from the brain. The pathway along which information travels through the neurons (nerve cells) of the brain is a neural pathway.
A lot of the programming of our body is ‘hard wired’ into us already, but we also create new neural pathways every time we experience something new and different.
Most would agree that life’s experiences are our best teachers. The more we do and experience, the more we learn and grow. In the most part those experiences are beneficial to us, even if it doesn’t feel like a positive experience at the time. After it is over we often express how we learnt from the experience and have grown to be a better person as a result.
Neural programming starts in the womb. For example, during pregnancy a mother who is addicted to sugar can pass that sweet tooth on to her baby, or a mother in a stressful environment is more likely to have a baby who is hyperactive and unsettled. Conversely, the mother who is stress free with a healthy diet is more likely to have a baby who is calm and contented.
The neural programming continues – baby smiles at mum and she smiles back with delight, baby learns that if she smiles, mum smiles and appears happy, so smiling is good.
Children quickly learn that if they touch a hot stove and get burnt, it’s not a good idea to touch a hot stove.
Many are conditioned since childhood that you should eat sweet or fatty foods to reward yourself or feel good. This comes from the notion of the ‘treat’ experience, so the neural pathway that develops is that if you want to feel good you should eat sugar, or comfort foods, or perhaps drink alcohol, or take a drug.
Unfortunately much of what we experience doesn’t always teach us what can help us. If someone has a bad experience when confronted by another, they may learn to avoid confrontation. This is not a good growth experience as perpetually avoiding confrontation allows others to walk all over them.
Alternatively, if they had a strong sense of self-worth which was developed through childhood and self-reinforced throughout their life, they would be more likely to stand in their power and express their truth.
Many people carry the burden of a lack of self-worth, which is the result of their neural pathways. For example, we see someone who is in a bad relationship, followed by a similar pattern with another, then another. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophesy which can only be broken when a new neural pathway of self-love and acceptance is activated and reinforced.
A classic neural pathway is when we’re under stress we reach for chocolate, biscuits, alcohol, cake, chips, ice cream, cigarettes…add yours to the list.
Some call these habits, but they are still neural pathways. Ever wondered why they say it takes 21 days to break a habit, or why it is hard to break a habit? It’s because you need to ‘rewire’ the brain to create a new neural pathway and lose the old one. The way to do that is with repetition – a sustained practice of an unfamiliar behavior to challenge the brain to ‘think’ differently.
Neural pathways are responsible for the way we act differently around various people and how we react to different stimuli on a day to day basis. We have all kinds of stimuli that trigger different pathways and responses.
A smell for instance can remind us of a time in our life that something happened, good or bad, which can activate a positive or negative response.
Why would I want to change my neural pathways?
Some pathways obviously serve us well and there is no need to change them. But some learnt experiences or neural pathways do not serve us well, especially when it comes to relationships and how we treat and respect ourselves, particularly our bodies, health, and overall well-being.
If we constantly think we are unworthy, or don’t have enough money or deserve a better life, then it doesn’t take much ‘thinking’ to understand the consequences because of the neural pathways we have created. If we constantly criticise, mistrust and judge others, we’re allowing our neural pathways to manifest misery and contraction from life.
Consider the thoughts you have and you’ll notice that so little time is spent thinking about how wonderful this very moment is or even the miracles of nature that surround us.
Living in presence is a neural pathway that can be cultivated.
Ingrained neural pathways can make it difficult for many to simply meditate or connect to their bodies when sitting in a chair, walking or doing the dishes.
Yet the good news is…we can change our neural pathways.
How to change neural pathways
In essence, it’s simply about Meaning, Specificity and Repetition
Meaning. If you want to change a neural pathway, It must have meaning for you. Note the keywords ‘for you’. The change must be important for you and not to appease another. Without a strong desire, it is highly unlikely that a neural pathway will change.
Specificity. The task is very specific. Let’s say giving up smoking – being very specific and clear about the change you want to create.
Repetition. Super, super important to change a neural pathway. If you stop and start, it won’t work. It has to be unfailing. Repetition is paramount and the new task or process has to be done over and over again until it simply becomes natural. Call it discipline if you wish – or your road to freedom.
Changing neural pathways is possible at any age. Also, repetition of a process or task can improve another related skill at the same time.
To create a new neural program, decide what changes you want to make, set out a specific plan of action and do it, over and over till it becomes second nature.
Here’s an example…
You want to exercise. That’s great. But first, establish why it’s important for you (the meaning) and what you want to achieve.
Then consider specificity – do you need to focus on weight loss, aerobic work, strength or general toning. Figure it out so you can formulate a specific training program. Do you prefer indoors or outdoor activities (and what to do if the weather is bad), do you prefer group activities such as a yoga class, dance lessons, spin classes?
Then the repetition. Understand you are in it for the long haul, because that’s where the results will come from. Relate back to how important this is for you and why you need to persevere to change your neural pathways from stagnant to vibrant.
Know that when you ‘break through’ and self-create a new neural pathway, the old will be buried and you will achieve the results you desire.
Doing things differently and repeatedly, is the way to create new neural pathways.
It’s like creating a new habit, you do it repeatedly and if the end result feels good then chances are that a new neural pathway will be created.
But not always. Why? Generally because of excuses e.g. resistance to change, it’s too hard, I want to stay in my comfort zone, I don’t like discipline, it’s boring and so on.
These mindsets, or neural pathways, need to be addressed to make changes so old pathways can be cleared. In general, developing new beneficial neural pathways gives us the opportunity to expand and prevent us from becoming rigid in our personality.
And the potential upside? Feelings of accomplishment, a renewed appreciation for life, improved health and relationships, being open to new experiences…and freedom from the shackles that have held you back.
To attempt to change too many neural pathways at the one time is overwhelming. To ease into it you could take baby steps with those that are easier to manage and then build as you go. Next time you go for a walk or a drive, consider a different route or go to a new destination. It could be your starting point into the amazing world of neuroplasticity .
Have you ever thought, “I wonder what’s down that road?” Maybe it’s time to find out.