“Neurons that fire together wire together”
This is a well known fact about the way the neurons in our brain work. Neurons are the cells (nerves) in our brains that carry the electrical signals from the brain to different parts of our bodies. They control every bodily function. When they send (fire) those signals, they fire in clusters.
For example, let’s look at our thoughts. Maybe you can relate to this. You have a thought in your head about chocolate; “I could really use some chocolate right now, I’ve had a really hard day at work”. That will lead to “well maybe I can stop at the shop on the way home to get some”, which leads to “while I’m there I should get some milk”, and then, “but I have to go to THAT shop because the cashier at the other one was a real bitch!”, and then “that chick really ruined my son’s birthday when she refused to sell me that stuff”. So we go from “I want some chocolate” to “that bitch ruined my son’s birthday” in the blink of an eye. One thought triggers another and another and another. Clusters.
It might also go from “I want some chocolate” to “I’m a failure because I can’t resist a little chocolate bar”, or from “that person said no to my invitation for a drink” to “I must be ugly if I can’t even get a date!”
So, the neurons fire together. You’ll have this shift from the first thought to the last one in the cluster literally within a millisecond. It is seriously fast and often subconscious. We aren’t always aware of this process happening.
When you think about your childhood I am sure you can think of numerous examples where you were taught things. Your ability to read these words for example, came about from firstly learning what the letters of the alphabet meant and then slowly putting them together into groups that represented words. Once you had that down, you put the words into groups to form sentences. And to make sure they made some kind of sense, you learned all kinds of rules about which words worked with which other words. Now when you first began this process everything was an effort. You had to really think about it and do things very deliberately. When you read these words right now, I bet you don’t even need to think about where the punctuation is and which order the letters are in. Your brain has created a routine (schema) that has become automatic.
Our thoughts and emotions do the same thing. We learn specific ways of thinking and emoting. In terms of neuroscience the process of creating these routines creates neural pathways that become permanent. Well at least we usually believe they are permanent. This is the process of wiring the neurons together so that when we recall the information we get the clusters firing.
I read an article on this the other day and thought I would share it with you. It discusses how the brain can change, and how you have control over the way you think. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change the way it wires. The article is easy to read and understand and explains the processes nicely.
It also outlines some simple things you can do to begin changing your thought processes. Rather than going from “that guy declined my offer of a drink” to “I must be ugly and unworthy”, the idea is that you get to “well, he might have had a tough day at work and needs some time to himself, or “maybe he has plans to for dinner with his parents and siblings” instead.
So, if we are going to learn how to create new neural pathways there are some things we need to know:
- It takes time. The old patterns that aren’t serving you were created over time, just like learning how to read. It’s not going to change overnight.
- While you’re learning and practicing, be kind to yourself. Changing those ingrained habits is tough. Our brain becomes so used to specific patterns that it travels the pathways automatically. Sometimes we don’t get a choice of where our brains go, particularly when we are stressed. Especially when we are stressed (the reasons for this needs to go in another post).
- When you find yourself stressed, STOP and take several deep breaths before coming back to what you were doing. If you need to, take some time out.
- Practice, practice, practice. Like any new skill, it is difficult at first and becomes easier the more you do it (because the new pattern will be automatic too).
- Be persistent. You are worth the effort!
If you would like to read more on this, try a book called “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, MD, or “Rewire your Brain” by John B. Arden, Ph. D.