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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

The Neurobiology of Change

As anyone who is struggling to keep their New Year’s Resolutions at this point in January knows, change is hard! Implementing any new habit, such as exercising regularly, cutting back on alcohol consumption, quitting smoking, or practicing patience, requires persistence and dedication over time. What makes it so difficult to break an old habit and replace it with a healthier one, especially if we truly believe this will benefit us in significant ways? The answer can be found in that very brain of yours that made the decision to embark on this new direction: your neural pathways. Neurons are cells in the brain that carry messages. In utero, the brain develops from the bottom up and the inside out in response to sensory stimulation. If the input is rhythmic and predictable, neurons will travel from the brainstem, which is responsible for our survival responses (fight, flight, or freeze) as well as autonomic systems like breathing and heart rate, to the diencephalon, which is responsible for motor movement, to the limbic system, which houses our emotions, to the neocortex, which governs higher levels of rational thought. If the mother is in a relatively calm state during her pregnancy, her heart beat will by rhythmic, her voice will be soothing, and her baby will experience sensory input that encourages neural development throughout the brain. If the mother is experiencing severe distress during her pregnancy, such as domestic violence or poverty, or is abusing drugs and alcohol, her baby will be born with most of his or her neurons clustered in the brain stem, anticipating a chaotic environment where survival will be the over-riding concern.

Neural pathways continue to develop during childhood, either in response to a relatively safe and predicable environment and supportive caregivers, which allows these “cross brains” connections to continue to form from the bottom to the top of the brain so that we can respond appropriately to situations as they occur, or survival mode continues to be reinforced by a stressful, inconsistent environment and neglectful and/or abusive caregivers, keeping the neural pathways localized in the brainstem and limiting the range of responses available when distressing events occur to fight, flight or freeze.

Habits you have formed over the course of a lifetime develop into strong neural pathways in the brain for any given behavior. Forming new pathways requires a different behavior to be repeated consistently over time, allowing neurons to connect and forge new pathways in the brain. The old pathways eventually dry up and are no longer the “default” setting. As new habits are being practiced, however, the temptation is to use the easier, more clearly defined pathways already in place, especially when we are tired, hungry, lonely, upset or frightened. When our physical or emotional states are compromised, we tend to rely on old coping mechanisms even if we are cognitively aware that they may have unwanted side effects or cause more problems for us in the long run.

Neural pathways don’t change by merely thinking about the new behavior. We have to have a “corrective experience” with it that releases dopamine and serotonin in the pleasure centers of the brain, reinforcing the experience and causing us to want to continue to pursue it. Healthy connected relationships provide support for developing new, positive habits. Seek support and accountability for the changes you desire to make in 2017 and when you get discouraged about the slow pace of progress, remember, you are literally re-wiring your brain!

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