What we can learn, we can unlearn
Up to now, we have been discussing neuroplasticity as though our brain is a one-way street, but that’s definitely not the case. Our brain is totally fluid, what we can learn we can unlearn just as quickly. In the first part of this chapter, I mentioned that our neural circuits are pruned to the tune of 20 billion synapses a day, or so, during adolescence, and this practice continues, although at a slower rate, for our entire lives.
Pathways we don’t use simply shrivel-up and die. We forget people, places, and things; we lose skills, some acquired with a great deal of effort; we change habits, likes, dislikes, political parties; we adapt new ways of doing things, discarding the old; in other words, if we are the sum of our experiences, we become different people over time, and this is all a result of neuroplasticity.
Baseball players have batting practice every day, during the season, and many continue all winter; actors rehearse again, and again, and again; in fact, every learned skill must be practiced to maintain the neural circuits we have created, or we lose it, over time. Jascha Heifetz, the renowned violinist is rumored to have said: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”
Neglect and atrophy is not the only way our circuits can change. When we change our minds about something, we really change our minds. When we receive new information that changes how we think or feel about someone or something, we literally alter synaptic connections all over our brains. Neurons that used to be connected to one place are now connected somewhere else, firing with different neural circuits. We don’t have to worry about the mechanics of it, we just make a decision and it’s done for us through the process of neuroplasticity.
Of course, we all know we have a built-in “forgetter,” and we see evidence of it every day, but is neglect and inattention the only way our neural circuits can change? Fortunately for us, the answer to that is no. Just as new information that we deem important can change our thinking and our beliefs, we can also change habit or working memory using the same tools. Let’s say we have always done something a certain way, perhaps because a parent or teacher showed us early in life, and years later we find a new way to do the same thing that’s much more efficient, and produces a better result. It might be a woodworking technique, a golf swing, or a sewing method, what it is doesn’t matter. The fact is, we can change habitual behavior as easily as we can change our minds. All it requires is that we pay attention, and practice the new method until it becomes our new habit. Connections in the brain that used to exist will disappear, replaced by the new connections we create simply by changing the way we think, and subsequently, our actions.
Oftentimes, change isn’t easy, and I don’t mean to leave you with the impression that it is. If it was, this book wouldn’t have nine chapters, and I could stop right here, and perhaps leave you with just a few simple instructions. All I’m trying to do here is impress upon you that your brain is constantly changing, and you have ultimate control over it – for good or ill. The rest of this chapter will address how we learn addiction, and the factors that influence us along the way. I just want you to remember, as you read, that just because your brain has formed certain connections, and you have learned to respond to certain cues and triggers, doesn’t mean you can’t go back, make new connections, and form new habits that countermand and supersede the old.
After all, the people in the surveys and studies in Chapter three are just like you and I. They found a way out, and so can you!
(Excerpted from Chapter 2 of the forthcoming book: “Powerless No Longer” Copyright© 2011, Pete Soderman)