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What did I just train my brain to do?

The human mind

It’s not true what they say: you can teach an old dog new tricks. Up until just a few years back, the scientific consensus was that adult brains more or less stop changing, but the newest research presents a strong case that our brains continue to form new connections and pathways throughout our lives. This idea that the brain changes its own structure over time, called “neural plasticity,” has a lot to do with forming and breaking habits, because a habit is a set of neural connections that makes it more or less automatic to do one thing instead of another.

How Habits Form and Are Broken
The way we break existing habits is to interrupt them–to use different conditions, distractions, or thinking to get ourselves to do something other than what we’re used to. The way we form habits is to do a certain thing consistently day after day, a few dozen to a few hundred times. Breaking a habit means weakening the neural pathways our brains have created to make that behavior easier and preferred, while building a new habit means forging new neural pathways that helps our brains highly efficient in the things we do repeatedly, so we’ll have more brain function available for the unusual and the unexpected.

As an embarrassing example, there was a period where I would jokingly use the word “groovy” to describe things. I used this particular joke so much that at a certain point, I found myself saying “groovy” without meaning to. Someone would say “Hey Luc, it turns out that car repair I had to get cost hardly anything!” and I’d reply “Wow, groovy!” Needless to say, I had to go out of my way to dismantle that particular habit, and it took some effort.

I had a similar problem at a certain point with the expression “jinkies!”, but I don’t want to talk about it.

Getting Used to Things
So we’re constantly training our brains in and out of different behaviors. When we start adding salt to our meals or eat a lot of prepackaged or restaurant foods (both of which tend to be very high in sodium), we may be training ourselves into needing salt for things to taste “good” to us. When we decide not to do the dishes right after dinner for once after being used to doing it, we’re taking the first step in getting rid of that dish-doing behavior. The effects even extend to sex: as Norman Doidge argues in The Brain That Changes Itself, anything novel that’s connected to a pleasurable experience tends to become directly associated with pleasure on its own. This isn’t so surprising, though, to anyone who’s taken Psychology 101 and heard of Pavlov’s dogs, who began salivating whenever they heard the bell Pavlov sounded at feeding time. In a sense, the dogs had developed a bell fetish.

Good Parenting for Brains
The thing we can take away from all this is that our day-to-day decisions count in what kind of people we become. I’ve heard people advocate that someone who’s trying to develop healthy eating habits every once in a while take a healthy eating vacation and eat whatever they like, and while it’s possible that this has benefits (though I’m not sure it does), what we know about habit formation tells us that this will do some real damage to the good eating habits that are beginning to form. In a sense we’re telling our brains “Wait! Maybe we don’t want that habit after all. Let’s dwindle that pathway down a little.”

Like kids, our brains seem to respond best to very consistent behavior on our part, to the point where eventually we don’t have to put any real effort into something we’ve done consistently for long enough.

Photo by Roger Smith

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