We have all heard that a leopard doesnít change its spots. But then, we are not leopards, and even a leopard learns to adapt its behavior to survive. So how do we change? It turns out that our brain is wired for change. While some components of change involve human behavior, such as commitment, strategy and perseverance, it is the brain and its related genes that orchestrate our facility for changing the way we think and behave towards something or someone.
Our increased ability to remember is a key factor in enabling us to make change. A primary area of the brain that promotes memory and learning is called the hippocampus which is our memory storage for recent experience. It is a multifaceted brain structure that interfaces with other brain systems. Significant facts are downloaded from the hippocampus into long term memory during sleep. It is fascinating that, among other things, it somehow codes external spatial locations so that they can be recalled. There is some evidence that individual neurons are actually paired with positions outside the body. The hippocampus facilitates adaptation because it permits us to hold new information in memory so we can compare it to past encounters. We are then able to adapt to a present situation making cognitive and behavioral adjustments that take the new information into account.
Recalling new experience and integrating it into our thinking and behavioral repertoire is an intricate process. Lower brain parts seem to filter new experience. These networks recognize unfamiliar information that does not exist in previously laid down memory. The novel information is then sorted upward to more complex thinking centers for coding into memory for future recognition. Some lower memory systems are genetically laid down. For instance, a predisposition to move towards or away from light or towards the scent of food are genetically programmed memories. However, many memories involve information that is based on new life experience.
The human faculty to track, code and recall new experience enables us to change past patterns of behavior to accommodate an expanded memory database. An increased capacity to recall new experience led to greater flexibility and the possibility for more successful adaptation. Our memory stores coded patterns of past experience which we compare to our present day encounters. We typically apply this strategy to what is in the here and now and thenceforth, behave accordingly. For instance imagine that a child has abusive, neglectful parents. As he develops into adulthood, it is likely that he conjures up the memories of significant others in new situations of family context and behaves with similar expectations. Restorative experience with intimate attachment may potentially modify memory and thinking so that these expectations change. Sound simple? It is not at all simple, but amazing.
Our brain neurons are literally reconfigured to accommodate new information. In fact, our brain is continuously modeled by what we think and how we behave. Repeated patterns of behavior and thought are etched deeply into our neuronal connections. When we change our habits we change our brain! The more we enact and reenact a thought pattern or behavior the faster and more facile do the superhighway connections pave themselves into our neuronal firing patterns. This repeated action results in greater brain space devoted to the reoccurring behavior and thought pattern. For instance, a brain scan of a violinist reveals a larger portion of the brain is devoted to left handed digital memory than there is for someone without this trained musical expertise.
But what if we have habits that we now want to change? Some people donít believe that others can change, and obviously some people donít. But as our complex thinking systems evolved and expanded and our memory to code new experience increased, we acquired the ability to recall something and to react differently because of that recollection. This cleaver human talent also gave us the capability to think about our own perceptions. This led to increased self-awareness and greater potential for intentional self will and control.
Cognitive behavioral psychotherapy is a research proven method of change. It can help us to willfully alter our thinking and behavior. Astonishingly, it now appears that it may potentially change neurotransmitter levels and resculpt brain circuitry. New habits of thinking and living will be etched in brain pathways. Changing your thinking and behavior actually changes your physical brain structures! For instance, stress or phobic thought can set off the fear alarm system, i.e., with repeated rumination the emotional anxiety circuitry can switch on and enliven a pattern of panicked anguish. This pathway becomes deeply grooved into neural circuitry by stress hormones and repeated use. Anxiety and sometimes a sense of paralysis and fear of change may be a result of these frequent episodes. Yet in many cases it is clear that change may be appropriate and necessary for a good life outcome and decreased anxiety. In a moment of emotional dysregulation changing behavior or thinking is heroic. It often means overriding a panicked, hopeless or rageful emotional state-something that is very hard to do.
Thinking clearly about strongly reactive relationship feelings in the context of past distress may be a pathway to self-understanding and change. Life experience encountered during the critical brain developmental years of childhood may not reflect the experience in oneís present life, yet these first experiences are deeply embedded. For example, a child of emotionally wounded parents may have coped with their abuse with a pattern of distrustful behavior that he/she is now using in a relationship with his/her spouse. Perhaps this husband or wife is trustworthy and thinks with deliberate kindness before speaking or acting. The formerly abused spouse may have difficulty transforming perceptions laid down by early life relationships. Early experiences of abuse, now traced firmly into memory pathways, may continue to signal suspicion throughout life by predicting foul play when none is intended or done. The skewed expectation, distorted by strongly attached feelings elicited in intimacy, may persist even when present reality has replaced a past reality. Present feelings, then, must be carefully sorted through with a focus on new experiences so that past behavioral patterns are not reenacted.
Have you ever had someone misinterpret what you were saying but refuse to change that interpretation even when you clarify that your intentions had been to communicate something quite different? This distortion usually happens because there has been an emotionally charged reaction to the initial communication. People in a highly aroused emotional state canít fully activate their energy to focus thoughtfully so as to clarify, analyze and negotiate the other personís intentions and differences. These kinds of distortions often happen when someone feels unsafe or is primed for anger because of substance abuse or past habits of negative thinking and hostility. In such a mind state feelings are likely to twist and cloud thinking and communication. When such disheveled emotions occur, it is necessary to insist that constructive logic and communication supercede them. It may seem easier to hold onto angry feelings, but it bodes poorly for change and the promotion of understanding and good will.
A balanced emotional state may be more easily achieved by people whose reactivity system was set during the first year of life to a stable, loved and secure environment. Those whose set point was established under harsher circumstances, or who may be genetically more reactive are not lost. These individuals are rather like emotional diabetics. They can learn to avoid anxious, angry or depressive episodes by establishing life habits promoting tranquility and support that can override emotional pull. Thoughtful control may gradually master strong emotional sway towards more impulsive communication and behavior. Resetting patterns of emotional volatility may never be completely accomplished, but setting up strategy to change response patterns on neuronal, cognitive and behavioral levels is quite possible.
Our society demands that we accommodate new information and change on a daily basis at a pace never before experienced by mankind. Cognitive flexibility and the integration of new information have become necessary for successful life in this century. Often, change is hard even when we clearly see that hope, peace and a better life may lie in this new direction. It seems that the accommodation to new thinking and experience is rather like going off to college; it may lead to new life possibilities and an expanded self. Four years of intensive study almost always changes the life perspective of the student. Most often, this new information proves invaluable in grappling with the pleasure and perils of adulthood. Hopefully this dynamic process of development and change continues throughout life.
It is exciting to understand that we have a remarkable brain based capacity to change. To lead an intentional life we must make a serious examination of where we choose to devote our time, brainpower and life energy. If this self-inventory unmasks self destructive habits or perhaps little or no focus on self enhancement, then a program of planned strategy for change is in order. Usually we change our lives for good when we have a plan to change. (Recently the mayor of Newark was quoted to exclaim, ďIf you focus on nothing, you will accomplish nothing!Ē).
Change can give us hope. We can begin to create new habits of living and thinking that reflect the new person that we have chosen to become. We can choose where to focus our energy and, to some extent, where we spend our time. New patterns that are repeatedly enacted will become neuronal superhighways. Patterns that we choose to neglect will wither. Many people have survived hardship and have changed poor life habits. What is your life focus? Where do you spend energy on a regular basis? It is worth contemplating for life is a moment in time to be spent well.
- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist