The Neuroscience of Changing Your Behavior

Your life literally shapes your brain.

The more often you perform an action or behave a certain way, the more it gets physically wired into your brain. This amazing adaptive quality of your brain is known as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity can work both for and against you.

Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change its physical structure and function based on input from your experiences, behaviors, emotions, and even thoughts. It used to be believed that except for a few specific growth periods in childhood, the brain was pretty much fixed. Now, we know that’s not true. Your brain is capable of change until the day you die.

Neuroplasticity gained scientific validation in the later half of the twentieth century and has far-reaching implications for almost every aspect of human life and culture from education and medicine to relationships and happiness. This morphing capability renders your brain extremely resilient, but also makes it very vulnerable to outside and internal, usually unconscious, influences.

Habits Become Wired Into Your Brain

Your brain forms neuronal connections based on what you do repeatedly in your life – both good and bad. Worrying about every little thing. Cruising online pornography. Picking at your fingernails. Hitting the gym. Meditating. Your repeated mental states, responses, and behaviors become neural traits.

Making or breaking a habit involves neuroplastic change in your brain. A person desires something because their plastic brain has become sensitized to the substance or experience and craves it. When an urge is satisfied, dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, is released. The same shot of dopamine that gives pleasure is also an essential component of neuroplastic change. Dopamine assists in building neuronal connections that reinforce the habit.

The first time you do something, the dopamine reward comes after the event. Each time thereafter, dopamine gets released earlier and earlier until just thinking about something causes an anticipatory dopamine surge. The dopamine preceding the action motivates you to perform the behavior in the future.

Every time you act in the same way, a specific neuronal pattern is stimulated and becomes strengthened in your brain. We know that neurons that fire together wire together. Your brain, being the efficient entity that it is, takes the path of least resistance each time and a habit is born.

Changing Your Behavior Means Changing Your Brain

To break bad habits, you really have to change your brain. When it comes to changing your behavior – and in life, in general, you’ll have more success if you make friends with your mind and brain and put them to work for you. You can change your behavior – even those hard-to-break habits – by building alternate pathways in your brain.

When you first try to adopt a new behavior, you have to enlist your prefrontal cortex, the thinking brain, and insert conscious effort, intention, and thought into the process. When you’ve performed the new routine enough times for connections to be made and strengthened in your brain, the behavior will require less effort as it becomes the default pattern.

You’ve probably heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Unfortunately, that’s false. The amount of time it takes to modify behavior depends on what you’re trying to do and can range anywhere from 3 weeks to months or even longer. The relationship between adopting a new behavior and automaticity (acting without having to think about it) is much like climbing a hill that starts out steep and gradually levels off. In the beginning, you make some really impressive progress, but the gains diminish over time.

How To Establish New Behavior Patterns

Changing your behavior isn’t easy, but it can be done, and your brain can help you. Here’s how:

Know Your Triggers – Determine what causes the anticipatory dopamine release to motivate you towards a behavior or habit and avoid it. If at all possible, remove the triggers from your life. This could mean changing your environment completely or in small ways. If you want to make a change, whether it’s breaking a bad habit or creating a healthy one, you need to make sure your environment supports it.

Find Ways To Reduce Stress – Bad habits or unwanted behaviors are usually coping mechanisms. If you don’t engage in them, you’ll stay stressed and will get even more stressed because you can’t release it in your usual way. You will benefit by finding alternate ways blow off steam, such as exercise, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, sleep, and social interaction.

Pay Attention – You’ll modify your behavior more easily if you engage your prefrontal cortex by actively paying attention. Your brain has limited resources. When you stop paying attention because you’re distracted or stressed, your brain reverts back to old patterns, and you end up eating a pint of ice cream. Every time you perform the new behavior or override an urge, you’re making the old habit weaker in your brain.

Start small – Changing your behavior requires willpower, which uses serotonin. Willpower is a lot like a muscle. It gets tired and depleted. Start out making small changes one at a time that don’t need much willpower. Instead of drastically overhauling your diet all at once, just cut out one thing. A couple of weeks later when the first change is established, make another modification for the better.

Increase Your SerotoninIncreasing serotonin helps your prefrontal cortex function properly and increases your willpower. There are many ways to raise serotonin levels naturally, including getting more sunlight, getting a massage, exercising, and recalling happy memories.

Enlist Your Thinking BrainCultivating awareness will help your prefrontal cortex override default patterns. Consciously think about how your life would improve by changing your behavior. Remind and motivate yourself with affirmations, visualization, and positive self-talkScience shows that using positive self-reflection helps significantly in establishing new habits.

Celebrate the small victories – Focusing on minor achievements and accomplishments along the way keeps the dopamine flowing and helps you stay motivated. In fact, science shows that shifting your attention away from the long-term goal and just focusing on showing up and getting your new habit done every single day is more successful.

Surround Yourself With The Right People – Research shows that behavior and feelings are contagious in our relationships up to three degrees. This was first found to be true with obesity and then with loneliness and happiness. Whatever behavioral change you want to make or break, it will be easier for you to do if you find people who encourage you and want to change too.

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16 Comments

  1. Sandra Pawula Reply

    I like the idea of recalling happy memories, in particular. Thanks for clarifying this: You’ve probably heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. “Unfortunately, that’s false. The amount of time it takes to modify behavior depends on what you’re trying to do and can range anywhere from 3 weeks to months or even longer.” I think it’s easier to be successful when we have a realistic view of what it takes.

  2. Hi Debbie…I use the recall of happy memories as a trigger for experiencing a result I want…coming from that ‘feeling good’ place usually makes a big difference in my life experiences.
    All good stuff and great reminders as always. Thanks for this. 🙂

  3. Allanah Hunt Reply

    I love the idea of starting small and building new habits one at a time. It makes total sense as changing everything at once is stressful and can cause anxiety. Great article Debbie <3

  4. Like Allanah, it is nice to know that we can start small for building a habit over time. Change can be difficult especially as if our patterns are already hard wired. But it is possible. Love your tips!

    • Start small, patience, and persistence will help anyone find success in changing a habit. I think it helps to understand that we are physically having to grow new pathways in our brains. Makes the time seem more reasonable. At least it worked for me when recovering from s brain injury, which took years.

  5. Starting small works and being really aware of the people you surround yourself with is so important too thanks Debbie great points to take away xx

    • Suzie, you are so right in there id much power to gain in a supportive environment. It helps tremendously. And baby steps are important too. Even one inch of progress is still progress.

  6. Love all the ways you have emphasized on to change a habit. For me personally “knowing my triggers” is the most imperative. When I can get a hold of what triggers me…I can control it before it turns into something negative.
    xoxo, Z~

  7. The clarity with which you explain these complicated concepts is remarkable, Debbie. It’s been thirteen years since I started my journey to change my brain and thus halt the physical and emotional and quality-of-life impacts of over four decades coping with secondhand drinking. What you’ve described here is exactly what I did along the way and as you write, it’s so important to celebrate the small victories every day. Thank you!

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Lisa. I’m not a neuroscientist. So, I I have to put in terms I can understand. Seems to work for others! I didn’t really know the mechanics of all of it as I was doing it, but that’s the beauty of it. It works whether you fully grasp the science or not. I just want people to understand that there is scientific evidence for this and it’s not some woo woo. airy fairy stuff. Glad you figured it out to your benefit too!

  8. SHOGIE LAWRENCE KAMOL Jnr Reply

    I like the idea of being with the right people.Sometimes it is the people we are associated with will influence us to repeat the same habit over and over again.

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