To change a behavior, rewire your brain (part one)

My clients get stuck in a negative pattern at times. I do, too. We’re all human, right? Well, except for the cat and dog I hypnotized at a party…

Anyhow, we all get stuck at times. And it can feel impossible to change our pattern. Why do we get stuck? That’s too big a question for one blog post, but I can share a small part of that answer today that deals with neuroscience. No, I won’t bore you with endless detail. This will have minimal jargon.

Our brain has a large network of neural pathways. There are more pathways than Starbucks locations, so many, many, many. Think of the pathways as a large number of major highways, huge multi-lane city streets, smaller city streets, and rarely traveled country roads. In short, a huge network of roads.

Instead of connecting people, these pathways connect different parts of the brain, so that we can think, feel, and take action.

For humans to have survived this long, our brain needed a way to communicate data within the brain and body, with maximum efficiency. After all, when a snake approached Carla the cave woman, she couldn’t stand there and ponder all the possibilities.

She didn’t have time to think, “That snake might be harmless. But it might be poisonous. Let me think about this. Thinking of snakes, I wonder what Diane is up to? What does Sam see in her? She’s so smug. Oh, I need to ask Sam for a day off next week. He’s a great guy, that Sam. Oh, Frasier, that’s another smug guy.”

Carla’s cave woman brain needed a super quick decision to maximize survival. So, her brain created a fight or flight response. (For neuroscience experts out there, yes there’s a possible freeze reaction, too, but I’m keeping things simple and won’t even mention the word, “freeze.”)

After all, in cave person days, physical danger lurked everywhere. And Carla’s brain wanted to keep her alive, so it activated her fight or flight response a bit more often than actually needed. Often, the snake nearby was just a stick. But accuracy wasn’t the main goal. Keeping Carla alive was the brain’s main goal.

Having many false conclusions wasn’t a bug in our mental software. It was a feature, and a feature that kept Carla alive. And what part of our brain helped keep us alive? What part protected us from both real snakes and imaginary ones?

(If you’re a neuroscience expert, I’m keeping it simple. I will not be mentioning the word, “hypothalamus.” I won’t even mention that part of the brain today. Not once. The hypothalamus, for today, doesn’t exist.)

The amygdala gets a lot of the credit for keeping us alive, for protecting us from potential danger. Or, as I sometimes call the amygdala, Amy G. (If you’re a neuroscience expert, I do realize that the amygdala doesn’t have a gender. But I’m calling her Amy G., anyway.)

Thank you, Amy G. for protecting us human beings since we were born. You regulate important parts of our emotional world, including our fight or flight response. You are truly our great guardian, keeping us alive.

I keep asking the U.S. Congress to declare an Amy G. day to honor the amygdala. But they keep replying, “Amy G., hmmm. Oh, do you mean Amy Grant, the singer? Sure she had some hits, but no. We can’t name a day for every singer.” Sigh. I think the person reading my letters keeps getting the Amys mixed up.

But back to you, Amy G. We should build statues to your greatness. Amy G., you’re the unsung hero of the brain.

Through all these signals crisscrossing our neural pathways, humankind has created great works of art, complex computers, and built advanced societies that live in large cities. And much of this was possible, because of you, Amy G. You protected us long enough to accomplish great things.

And Amy G., I hope you won’t be upset with what I say next. In the next post, I’ll talk about the dark side of our amazing brain, including you, the beloved Amy G. Though I think you helped save us from extinction, you also have a dark side.

To all readers: if you have ever procrastinated on a school paper, a work project, or anything in life, that’s often due, at least in part, to Amy G.

If you have ever done anything irrational, there’s a good chance Amy G. was involved.

If you’ve ever tried to change a behavior or pattern, with no success, it’s likely Amy G. blocked you.

And Amy G., I’m not saying you cause all our misery and turmoil. What I’m saying is that often, you play a role. Sometimes a big role.

In the next post, I’ll say more about that. And I’ll share an idea on how we can get along with Amy G., in a much more productive way. If we rewire our brain, meaning play with our neural pathways, we can change.

We can learn to be more productive, create healthier habits, and generally live with less fear and more joy. If you’re curious about rewiring your neural pathways, stay tuned for part two.

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