Working with the Paradox of Brain Plasticity

I recently listened to author Norman Doidge at the Sydney Writers Festival and promptly bought and read his book The Brain that Changes Itself. What I most liked was the discussion on the paradox of plasticity.  It answered the question: “If our brains have plasticity, why do so many of us have habits that are hard to change?”

The answer relates to the title of one of my other favourite authors – Robert Fritz – and his book The Path of Least Resistance (for Managers).

Doidge quotes the metaphor of medical director Alvaro Pascual Leone, who says that our plastic brain is “like a snowy hill in winter” and our genes represent the features of the hill.  When we first snowboard down a hill we can take any path we like within the constraints of the hill, but the second and third time we will tend to take a path similar to the first path and thus “the path of least resistance is born”. By the end of the afternoon, we will have created a preferred path and for some, this will be the only path we use because it is fast, efficient and we can snowboard down without thinking too much.  Hence a neural path is born and that path is mirrored in our body’s musculature following the same path.

Others who crave variety may wish to try new paths, but they will have to actively focus on looking for and setting new routes – which requires more effort.

So what does this mean for changing existing habits?

Doidge quotes researchers Taub and Pascual – Leone, who found that when it comes to learning new physical skills – you have to block or constrain the commonly used pathway (the competitor for mental energy).  E.g. when they want a stroke victim to learn to re-use the non-functioning hand, it happens more quickly if the good hand is bandaged and not available for use.   They talk about setting up roadblocks to help change direction and they also talk about “massed practice” giving a person lots of practice in the first few months to develop the new skill.

So this got me thinking about overused mental habits of thinking or feeling – what then?  What is the equivalent of bandaging up our strongest thinking and feeling processes so that we can’t use them, thus allowing other areas to develop?

I don’t have firm answers yet, but the question helps explain why it is hard to learn new habits in these areas, unless we engage in some sort of “massed practice” – intensive development opportunities – where we immerse ourselves in the new learning,  we encourage our colleagues, friends and family to support us in making the changes and we  limit ourselves as much as possible from using our habitual responses.

My challenge this month is to stay appreciative – not critical – of every opportunity.  It will be fun I’m sure!!!

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