Imagine your brain as if it’s a sledding hill. When you arrive, it’s a pristine, untouched landscape of clean, white snow. Take your first trip down the hill and you leave an imprint of the path your sled has traveled. As the day progresses you see multiple tracks in the snow — but one or two seem to be more frequently used than others.
This is exactly how you learn. This is how habits — good and bad — are formed. This is how thoughts and ideas are entrenched in your mind. Paths are formed in your brain — use that path over and over and you reinforce behaviors, habits and thoughts.
The snowy hill metaphor comes from Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, associate professor in neurology at Harvard Medical School. Pascual-Leone’s ground-breaking work is profiled in The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. And, Doidge shows, the cool thing about your brain is that when a path is blocked in some way — by injury or illness — the brain can re-wire itself to take an adjacent path to get where it needs to go.
Experiments have shown just how amazing and malleable our brains are. Consider the puzzle of “phantom limbs” — extremities amputated but still registering as “present” in the brain. It’s as if the communication between the limb and the brain still exists. Why? Because the neural pathways continue to exist! Doidge details an experiment using a mirror box that fools the brain into “seeing” a whole limb in the place of a missing limb. Once the brain registers “oh, there’s that hand!”, the phantom limb — with its phantom pain, itch, gestures — disappears. The brain has taken another path.
Using this new understanding, cutting-edge methods have been developed to help stroke victims learn to re-wire their brain by forging new neural pathways, bypassing damaged areas to regain movement and use of affected parts of their bodies.
Children with attention deficit disorders or learning disabilities are forging new ways of using their brains to overcome their hurdles. Using specific drills and techniques, attention improves and learning increases. Even with autistic children.
All this research confirms what so many of us have been talking about — that you can change your thoughts and change your life.
Take a look at your most hard-wired thoughts. A person who defaults to telling “un-truths” might be operating with an operating thought like: “She’ll get mad when I tell her the truth”. Chronic lying reinforces a certain neural pathway — a pretty stressful one, to boot. What if the lie is found out? If the underlying thought changes to: “She may get mad when I tell the truth, but I can deal with mad”, the established pathway is bypassed in favor of a new one — one that is more positive and less stressful.
If your underlying thought is: “I’m not good enough”, you might find yourself depressed, hesitant, lonely, unfulfilled and sad. Changing your thought to “I’m good enough”, by examining the roots of the negative thought creates a new neural pathway, and a happier life.
Now, perhaps this sounds too much like Stuart Smalley and his twee affirmations: “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” OK. Got it. But research has shown that creating new thoughts around what you’d like to be or visualizations around how you’d like to act create new ways for the brain to function. So, there’s something there we need to take seriously.
And it’s this: you are not your thoughts. If your thoughts are not working for you — creating a positive, abundant attitude — you can change them. You can overcome your self-imposed limits by working on shifting that which you think you know about yourself and the world. You can re-wire your brain.
All you have to do is point your sled toward another path. And enjoy the ride, baby.