Did you make a list of New Year’s resolutions only to find yourself faltering a day or week later? You’re certainly not alone. Most people have great intentions as they put forth their lists, but it’s the follow-through that gets them. They give up before they have had a chance to create a new habit.
As adults we forget that it took us a long time and great effort to “learn” to do everything that we know how to do – walk, tie a shoelace, connect a bat to the ball, and balance our checkbooks. The reality of this gets lost on us when we try to learn as adults, causing us to get frustrated and give up if something new does not come easily.
So what can you do to increase the likelihood of sticking to those New Year’s resolutions and make this year a success? The answers lie in the world of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to bud new neurons (the thinking cells in your grey matter) and to make new connections and pathways between those neurons. So how do we do this? The same way you get to play at Carnegie Hall. Practice, practice, practice. Plus some focused attention.
That’s the how. Here’s the why.
When it comes to activating neuroplasticity there are two important rules to remember. The first one is: “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. For example, let’s say you are learning a new skill, like how to type on a keyboard. As you practice moving certain fingers to certain keys, this creates a new firing pattern between neurons involved in that activity. As you repeat that combination of movements, the activation of these neurons at the same time will create a new brain map, i.e. new connections and pathways. The more that new brain map is used the clearer and more quickly the neurons will fire. This is why you may struggle initially but with time and repetition your fingers seem to “fly” over the keyboard and you no longer need to “think” about which finger goes where. It becomes automatic. This automaticity makes us more efficient from a survival perspective, rather than having to learn everything from scratch on a daily basis.
The second rule is “Neurons that fire apart, wire apart.” This means that when you stop using a skill, the brain map begins to disintegrate. This is because you only have so much “real estate” in your brain. When a pathway is no longer traveled the “space” in your brain that was mapped to one particular skill may get turned over to a new skill once the old one is no longer needed or used.
There is no shortcut to becoming an expert, as the saying goes. You can’t outsmart neuroplasticity with a quick fix or a magic bullet. If you try to divide your attention while learning a new skill (e.g., doing your homework while listening to the TV) you may start to build the road, but chances are that it will be weak and crumble easily. The same is true for giving up before you have given it enough practice. It’s not that you’re an old dog that can’t learn a new trick, it’s that you can’t trick your way into learning it. The fact is that there is no shortcut around doing the work.
It’s also important to remember that the brain does not differentiate between a “good” habit and a “bad” habit. If you put in the right ingredients you can just as easily “train” yourself to be an anxietizer, someone who always sees the negative, or someone who constantly judges and criticizes.
For those of you experiencing fertility challenges or any other difficult life circumstance – remember that it is healthy and appropriate to feel whatever you are feeling as it comes up. BUT you do have a choice as to how long you stay there, and how much energy you want to direct to building a “negative” thought or behavior pattern in your brain. In a sea of things you cannot control, remember that this is one place you can take control.
So don’t give up on those resolutions – just be smarter about how you add them to your repertoire. Your brain has neuroplasticity throughout your lifespan, so no excuses. You just have to be willing to do the work to create those new pathways!!
If you’d like to do some more reading in the area of neuroplasticity, here are some resource to get you started: “The Body Has A Mind of Its Own” by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee; “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” by Sharon Begley; and, “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, M.D.