Why change isn’t easy: Neuroplasticity 101

“Jogging Woman in Grass” by “Mike” Michael L. Baird is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We are now 2 weeks into 2016. Has anyone else already waved goodbye to some (OK, maybe all) of their resolutions for the new year?

It seems as if it should be easy to make the changes in our lives we know we should make for our health and happiness each year, but after a few days or weeks most of us will inevitably fall back into our old habits and start looking toward next year as our big year of change. Rather than giving up on your 2016 resolutions as they fall by the wayside, make 2016 the year you arm yourself with knowledge about how your brain changes, revise your expectations for what your brain is capable of doing in two short weeks, and think about what you can do this year to lay the foundation for achieving those resolutions in the years ahead.

If you’ve ever watched a shortcut develop through an empty lot, park, field, etc., you’ll have a great analogy for what your brain is doing on a daily basis. Before anyone starts walking along the shortcut, it’s filled with weeds and grass like the rest of the field: it doesn’t even look like a shortcut. As the shortcut is used more often by more people, it becomes clearer and easier to follow as the grass disappears and a path emerges. The more the path is used, the more apparent it becomes.

Making these sorts of “paths” over time is what our brains are made to do. Our brains are making paths every second of every moment of every day. Everything we experience or do in our lives activates a particular path in our brains. The more we activate similar pathways in our brains by engaging in similar experiences (watching videos of funny animals online every night) or doing similar things (sitting down on the couch after dinner and falling asleep), the stronger those pathways become and the more resistant they become to change.

Neuroplasticity is the official term neuroscientists use to refer to our brain’s ability to change its connections and pathways. Our brains have incredible neuroplasticity when we are children and possibly even more when we are adolescents, but they still retain a basic level of neuroplasticity even as we age. Neuroscientists are showing that we can do things to enhance our brain’s neuroplasticity* but even without those things our brains have the ability to learn new paths throughout our entire lives.

If our brains are able to change throughout our lives, why do our resolutions so often fail?

Imagine you arrive at your field one morning and find that the well-worn path you used yesterday has disappeared overnight. Would you be surprised? How much more surprised would you be if your well-worn path disappeared AND a brand new, equally well-worn path appeared on the same morning? Barring some sort of construction project or a very eager landscaper, this is an impossible situation. Yet every time January 1st rolls around we try to make our brains dismantle old pathways and create new pathways overnight, and then we’re discouraged and give up on our goals when our brains inevitably fail.

If the behavior you are trying to change with your 2016 resolutions is one you’ve been avoiding for years, you have a pretty well-worn path in your brain for avoiding that behavior and it’s not going to be an easy thing to eliminate that particular path. The silver lining is that each and every time you engage in the new behavior you want to instill in your life (e.g., going to bed without watching videos one night, putting on your sneakers to take a walk after dinner), you strengthen the path for that new behavior. Likewise, each time you avoid the old behavior you are trying to eliminate, you weaken the path for the old behavior. Given enough time and experience with the new behavior and enough time and experience away from the old behavior, your new path will slowly emerge and the old path will begin to disappear.

As you continue to move through 2016, remember that your apparent lack of willpower in the face of those office donuts isn’t so much a lack of willpower as it is a reflection of your brain’s ironclad learning abilities. You would never (successfully) run a marathon or climb a mountain without months or even years of daily training. Nor would you expect to lose your ability to drive a car or find the sum of 2+2 in a single day (under normal circumstances). Your brain may be plastic but it doesn’t come with its own overnight construction crew. Consistent steps in the right direction this year will strengthen the new pathways you are trying to build in your brain, but consistent steps in the wrong direction will further strengthen the pathways you want to leave behind.

Let 2016 be the year you honor your brain’s natural learning process and keep working to maintain your resolutions. This year, rather than being discouraged on the days you fail to follow your resolutions and giving up until next year, be encouraged by your attempt at change.

And then try again.

Your 2017 resolutions will thank you.

Posted by Nicole Speer, INC Director of Operations

*Recent neuroscience research suggests that regular exercise, mindfulness, sufficient sleep, continued learning, and even diet are all ways to enhance your brain’s natural neuroplasticity. Stay tuned for future posts highlighting this research.