Are there absolute, eternal truths or is everything forever changing? Plato believed there were fixed, archetypal forms governing everything in nature. Heraclitus on the other hand believed that the only constant was change. “We never step into the same river twice”, he said.
Because Plato was so dogmatic, I have no hesitation in saying that he was wrong. We can’t find a single thing that doesn’t change. Scientific laws, religious beliefs, geological and biological structures, and personal habits are all fluid if we examine them closely enough, but Plato still has a point. Forms may not be eternal but they may change so slowly as to be immutable for all practical purposes.
It used to be part of scientific dogma that the structure of our brain was incapable of further development after we reached adulthood. Unlike other cells in the body, most neurons can’t regenerate themselves and they steadily die off as we age. This seemed to support the view that what happens in childhood is our destiny – that our character is fixed by the age of twenty.
That view is now seen to be a myth. Brain cells are not like inert electrical wiring. Depending on how they are used, they will either grow or diminish in complexity. Within hours, neurons can be stimulated to establish thousands of new connections with its neighbours, changing their physical structure to do so.
This neuroplasticity, which is the ability to build new connections at a cellular level, is what makes us smart. It enables us, at any age, to develop new ways of thinking and behaving. We can think laterally, contemplate alternatives, draw on libraries of memory, learn from mistakes, imagine the unknown and implement plans to achieve it. A wise old man may have less neurons than a callow youth, but he has a more richly connected and sophisticated brain.
In learning a new behaviour, change occurs within the neurons themselves. Dormant genes in the DNA of individual cells are woken up by a demand from the environment. If the matter seems urgent enough, these genes ‘express’ themselves by constructing hundreds of highly specific docking ports at the signalling tips of their cells.
These structures amplify the flow of chemical and electrical information between any one cell and thousands of others, streamlining their effective group action. When these new connections are sufficiently strong and well practiced, they are able to over-rule an old pattern and establish a new one.
Neuroplasticity makes us wonder how much it is possible to reinvent ourselves, and gives some credibility to the philosophy of Positive Thinking. We’ve seen how some people can utterly transform themselves, so why not us? Is it all just a matter of self-belief or are there other factors involved? We know that change is possible and how it happens, but why is it still so hard to achieve?
If you’ve ever tried to change a habit or establish a new one, you will know how difficult this can be. It is self-evident that we can’t just think or visualise our way to perfection. I imagine that most of the billion overweight people on this planet would rather be slimmer, but wishing or hoping doesn’t make it happen.
Although the brain is plastic, it still functions as a creature of habit. It operates according to a vast catalogue of internal manuals that govern every aspect of our behaviour. These tell us how to walk, eat, smile, pick up a cup, talk grammatically, worry, get angry, get sad, avoid or seek intimacy, save or spend money, or think about God.
The above activities are all learnt behaviours, bedded down by thousands of individual episodes over years of training. Once they become habits, we no longer think about how we do them, if we ever did. This saves energy since we don’t have to think about what to do next. We eat a cake at morning tea because we always do. When the phone rings, we have our stock of set responses ready to go. This is the repertoire of automatic skills that get us though our day.
Habits and routines can be deeply reassuring. They are talismans against the unknown. The ice caps may be melting, the Nazis may have invaded Poland, but I’ve still got my cup of tea and my newspaper. Everything is safe after all. If I do what I usually do, day after day, and nothing really bad happens, then I’m obviously doing the right thing.
Because habits operate unconsciously, we feel their power only when we try to make a change. If you always have a snack while watching TV, just see what happens if you try to give it up. Your head will spin, your belly will complain, your muscles will make you want to jump out of the chair, and your mind will say “But I must have it! It would be so unnatural if I didn’t!” Our habits can have the unstoppable inertia of a freight train.
Nor is changing a habit simply a matter of determination and believing in oneself. Research has repeatedly show that willpower, like muscle strength, is a limited resource that gets depleted sooner or later. We can be iron-willed in the morning but succumb by the evening. Our habitual responses, on the other hand, chug along effortlessly, day and night, as they are designed to do, and never even pause for a breath.
Our conscious minds are smart. They can manipulate ideas, imagine alternatives, foresee the future and initiate action. Cocky as they are, they still serve a deeper master. Most of our decision-making and behaviour is ruled by unconscious, automatic processes, and we can never completely overrule them. As David Hume said “Reason is, and ought to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
For all of this, habits can still be changed. In fact, they are changing at a glacial pace all the time, getting stronger or weaker day by day, according to how much we feed or starve them. A habit, in its latent form in the brain, is only the encoded template for behaviour in any situation. To have an effect, it still needs to be fleshed out according to the particular circumstances of the moment. This is the point where we can intervene, and make a change.
A good intention just won’t do it. The brain needs more than this. In particular it needs action and lots of it. A good strategy is to consciously modify a habit each single time it surfaces. In this way, we can gradually taper off from a bad habit, or gradually taper into a good one. In building a new habit, it is easier to make use of the existing infrastructure, flawed as it might be, rather than starting from scratch.
So we may still have a chocolate biscuit, but only one, not three. We can’t do regular exercise, but we do walk to the shops rather than driving. We can’t give up our retail therapy, but we spend less than usual. Gradually, tentatively, a new pattern takes shape, and new possibilities emerge.
This prescription may seem so modest as to be virtually a cop-out. Surely we could hope for more than this, if only we put our minds to it. After all, some people rise from the gutters to become millionaires. Others cure their own cancers through willpower alone. It seems an affront to our intelligence to suggest that taking little steps is all that we can hope to achieve.
In fact, the real challenge is in the fine print which reads ‘Persistence’. The secret of change is not that we can do something right. It is that we do it right again and again and again and again. Hundreds, probably thousands, of times, despite the inevitable failures in between.
Each time we do something right, we make a little change in our mental wiring. It takes far more repetition than we expect, however, to consolidate that change. We can get spectacular results on a diet over a few weeks, just as the advertising suggests, but lasting change can only come after a year or more of good eating.
Permanent change usually requires conscious thought + strong motivation + physical action + repetition. The only exception is what is called ‘one-shot’ or ‘traumatic’ learning.
My neighbour’s little white dog once got bailed up by a cat in a strange park. Six months later, back at the same park, he froze and refused to enter. That is one-shot learning, souped up by strong ‘do-not-ever-forget-this’ fear hormones. That dog learnt his defensive response without any need to repeat the experience, and it is probably embedded for life.
Twelve years ago I fell though a ceiling and made a neat three-point landing on both feet and my bum. As I lay there in excruciating pain, I thought, ‘I’ve broken my back. I’ll never walk again. What an idiot!’, thereby adding emotional anguish to the physical damage.
I was rushed off to Sir Charles Gairdners Hospital where I got superb care. It seems that Tuesday morning is a good time to have an accident. Fortunately I got off lightly. One foot was broken but is now healed. The other seemed to be fine at the time but is now dicey, and my back is okay so long as I don’t stress it.
Because that event scared and shocked me, I wasn’t going to forget it. I made a strong ‘beware!’ resolution to avoid such accidents in the future. With that memory ever ready to flash into my mind, I now always get a tradesman to help me if there is the least possibility of danger, and I refuse to assist anyone else with their heavy lifting. I know too many people with irreparably damaged backs. I’ve been warned.
About the same time, my handyman uncle fell two feet from a ladder. He broke his elbow so badly it never repaired. He couldn’t go back to the sport that was his passion, and he went into serious mental decline thereafter. His fall and mine left me with an enduring mantra – ‘You can ruin your life in one careless moment’ – and I became more conscious of potential accidents waiting to happen.
A year later I almost fell down a flight of stairs. I was carrying a box of books which had obscured my peripheral vision of the top step. “I’ll have to be more careful”, I thought, but a week later I almost did it again, also carrying a box of books.
This second stumble made me realise that the thought and the motivation alone were not sufficient if my mind was preoccupied with something else. I needed to change the way I habitually walked up or down stairs, and to do it frequently enough to establish a new pattern. As I said earlier, lasting change requires more than good intentions. It needs thought + motivation + action + repetition.
It is easy to walk up or down stairs safely. It takes only a rudimentary level of attention, but no less than that! When I was hurrying up or down stairs, I tended to be out of balance, falling forward on the next step, counting on my reflexes to keep me upright. When I am relaxed and balanced on the other hand, I use entirely different muscles in my legs and abdomen, and the movement feels smooth and comfortable. It is dramatically different from a hurried, scrambling kind of way of stair-walking.
Because I knew that change had to be embedded at this automatic ‘muscle-memory’ level, I resolved to walk in this relaxed fashion every time I came to a flight of stairs. Of course, I often failed. I would forget my good intentions until a few steps down.
When I forgot, I got annoyed. Because I got annoyed quite frequently, I started to remember. It took about a month before I was remembering more often than forgetting, and about a year, and one or two thousand flights of stairs, to fully establish the pattern. It’s not that I’m a slow learner. The brain scientists now say that it really does take that long.
The crucial work for long-term storage takes place in a part of the brain called the ‘hippocampus’, which is Latin for ‘sea-horse’. Each time we repeat a task, loops of electricity circulate between the hippocampus, the frontal brain, the body and those parts of the cerebral cortex related to the action. The hippocampus knits this complex activity together into a unified template and stops it fading into oblivion, as it normally would without further stimuli. For an action to become fixed as a long-term skill or a habit, it has to ride the seahorse thousands of times over a year or two. Only if it lasts that long, will the new habit be safely home.
Positive thinking promises the Earth but it has obvious shortcomings. It rarely produces results that live up to expectations. Thoughts are nowhere near as powerful as we assume them to be. They are more like wishes than orders, and whatever we aspire to do is likely to change in the execution anyway.
To change a habit, it is good to be realistic about what is possible. The brain operates magnificently on the basis of the habits, routines and protocols of the past. It loves to do what it has done before, and gets great satisfaction out of doing so. As a result, the conscious mind can only do so much against the colossal inertia of habit.
There is no mystery about how positive change occurs. Our brains work according to the adage ‘actions speak louder than words.’ This means that lasting change doesn’t just come from imagining our goal. It comes from repeated activity towards that goal, far more than we might expect, and the enthusiasm necessary to see it through.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2010