Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change structure and function based on input from repeated behaviors, emotions, and thoughts is an empowering truth of the last decade with far reaching implications and possibilities for almost every aspect of human life and culture. However, this same characteristic, making your brain amazingly resilient, also makes it very vulnerable to outside and internal, usually unconscious, influences. In his book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Norman Doidge calls this the “plastic paradox.”
Think about it. Your brain actually wires itself and forms neuronal connections based on what you do over and over in your life. Vegging out in front of the TV. Having a sugar fix. Sipping soda. Drinking your morning cup of coffee. Fixing a cocktail to unwind after work. Smoking cigarettes. Biting your fingernails. Whether you want to call them bad habits or addictions, these activities literally become wired into your brain.
Habits Are Wired Into Your Brain
An addiction is a compulsive habit which can form around almost anything: exercise, Facebook, pornography, shoes, negative self talk, etc… All addiction involves neuroplastic change in the brain, and a person experiences cravings because their plastic brain has become sensitized to the substance or experience they desire.
When a craving is satisfied, dopamine, a feel good neurotransmitter, is released in the brain. The same shot of dopamine that makes you happy is an essential component to neuroplasticity and making neuronal connections which reinforce your behavior.
When a person kicks a habit, the addictive neuronal circuits in the brain become weaker and less active over time without the regular reinforcement of the behavior or substance, but they still exist for a while and can easily be reactivated.
In Breaking Bad Habits In Your Brain, I write:
You’ve probably heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Unfortunately this is not true, and there is no one size fits all answer here. The amount of time required to instill a new habit depends on what you’re trying to do and can range anywhere from 3 weeks to many months or longer with there being a curved relationship between habit and automaticity.
In the article, How Long It Takes to Form a New Habit by Maria Popova, explains:
It’s like trying to run up a hill that starts out steep and gradually levels off. At the start you’re making great progress upwards, but the closer you get to the peak, the smaller the gains in altitude with each step.
Unlearning a habit involves weakening connections between neurons through disuse and is just as plastic a process.
The same neuroplasticity which allows not-so-good-for-you habits to be carved into your brain also gives you the ability to change your brain and life for the better. What are you etching into your brain? By making conscious choices and leveraging neuroplasticity, you really can change yourself and your life for the better.
You have a use or lose it brain. Use it for you.
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