In his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge includes a metaphor originally created by neuroscientist, Alvaro Pascual-Leone. The brain could be compared to a snowy hill in winter. When we go down the hill on a sled, we can be flexible because we have the option of taking different paths through the soft snow each time. However, as we continue to choose the same path the second time or the third time, tracks will start to develop. These tracks become really easy and and efficient at guiding the sled down the hill. It doesn’t take long to begin to limit our choices to the one track that we have been taking again. In this sense, it is literally like getting stuck in a rut, following the same worn out path again. Taking a different path becomes increasingly difficult.
A real life example is when a person learns that to binge and purge temporarily numbs anxiety. By choosing to binge again and again in order to minimize anxiety, a well-worn path develops. Over time, it becomes very difficult to change the course of one’s thoughts and behaviors. Bingeing and purging can easily become the only choice because it appears that nothing else works. The same process is happening when your self-talk is consistently self-defeating. Or when you go into panic mode in social situations and a social phobia develops.
When we make the same choice again and again, we strengthen the neurons in the brain. Neurons are involved in these mental and behavioral patterns and continue to strengthen each time the same choice is made. In other words, each time we go down that same path in the snow.
But, thanks to the brain’s wondrous capacity for learning and rewiring itself – neuroplasticity – it’s not impossible to change our pattern. Even regardless of how worn out those paths down the hill become.
This is why paying close attention to your present circumstances is so important. Instead of unconsciously making similar choices to those you made in the past. What helps is staying keenly aware of what you are doing while you are doing it in order to facilitate finding a different path through the snow. Carrying out action patterns that are positive and healthy may be challenging at the start, but with practice, they too can become habitual. Finding and creating new worn-out paths (healthier ones!) is the definition of neuroplasticity.
For example, you’re at a party and you are standing near the dance floor. Suddenly you feel anxious. You might begin to ask yourself whether you have felt this feeling before. Perhaps right in that moment, if you’re aware enough, you might be able to stop the neural pathway of feeling anxious. You might say that even though I have felt anxious before in an environment similar to this, I can change it by choosing to feel excited instead and change the wiring of the neurons.
The way you begin to find and create new neural connections in the brain – and new experiences in your life – is through the choices you make. Each choice you make is priceless. Choose each moment with as much as awareness as possible to create a life that is filled with success, happiness and fulfillment.