01.01.2009

A Fresh Start

We can all change, but don't expect it to happen overnight, says Eric Harrison.

We can all change, but don't expect it to happen overnight, says Eric Harrison.

It was once thought that the structure of our brain was incapable of further development after we reached adulthood. Unlike other cells in the body, neurons do not regenerate. In fact, we lose them steadily as we get older. This seemed to support the view that what happens in childhood is our destiny - that the thoughts and behaviour that define our character are basically fixed by the age of twenty.

That view now seems to be a myth. The cells are not like inert electrical wiring. Depending on how they are used, they will either grow in complexity or fade away. While no new brain cells are born in adulthood, each cell is capable of establishing thousands of new connections with its neighbours, given the opportunities. In fact, a single thought, if repeated a few times, will build new synaptic docking points between those particular brain cells that can last indefinitely.

This ability to build new connections at a cellular level is what makes us smart. It enables us to think laterally, to contemplate alternatives, to draw on vast libraries of memory, to imagine the impossible and to learn from mistakes. A wise old man may have fewer neurons than a callow youth. His wisdom comes instead from the sophisticated structure of his brain.

If we assume our character is fixed, it will be. Our assumptions can limit us. Fortunately, scientists do a marvellous job of challenging this kind of "commonsense", instinctive assumption and often prove them wrong. As a result, we now know that the brain, the mind and our behaviour are changing all the time for better or worse - every day and every minute, in fact, and we can influence those changes if we choose to do so.

This can make us wonder, "What is possible? How much can we reinvent ourselves? Are there any limits to human perfectibility?" We've seen how some people can utterly transform themselves. Why not us? Is it all just a matter of self belief or are there other factors involved?

If you've ever tried to change a habit or establish a new one, you will know how difficult this can be. Although the brain is "plastic", it still functions as a creature of habit. It operates according to a vast catalogue of internal manuals that govern every aspect of our behaviour. These tell us how to walk, eat, smile, pick up a cup, talk grammatically, worry, get angry, get sad, avoid or seek intimacy, save or spend money, or think about God or the universe.

The above activities are all learnt behaviours, bedded down by thousands of individual episodes over years of training. Once they become habits, we no longer think about how we do them, if we ever did. They operate quite unconsciously as the repertoire of automatic skills that get us though our day.

Habits save energy. We don't have to think about what to do next. After we put on one sock, we put on the other. We eat a cake at morning tea because we always do. When the phone rings, we have our stock of set responses ready to go.

Habits and routines can be deeply reassuring. They are talismans against the unknown and the unpredictable. The ice caps may be melting, the Nazis may have invaded Poland, but I've still got my cup of tea and my newspaper. Everything is safe after all. If I do what I usually do, day after day, and nothing really bad happens, then I'm obviously doing the right thing.

Because our habits operate unconsciously, we tend to notice their power only when we try to make a change. If you always have a snack while watching TV, just see what happens if you try to give it up. The earth will shudder, your head will spin, your belly will roar, your muscles will make you jump out of the chair, and your mind will say "But I must have it! It would be so unnatural if I didn't!" Our habits can have the unstoppable inertia of a freight train.

Nor is changing a habit simply a matter of determination and believing in oneself. It is said that willpower, like muscle strength, is a limited resource that gets depleted sooner or later. We can be iron willed in the morning, but succumb by the evening. Our habitual responses, on the other hand, chug along effortlessly, day and night, as they are designed to do, and never even pause for a breath.

If you've ever tried, you'll know how hard it is to immediately stop a habit or start a new one. It doesn't usually work to shout at a particular habit and tell it to stop. To go cold turkey may be the only way to give up on nicotine or alcohol, but it takes immense effort and often life threatening circumstances to make you do it.

Our conscious mind is smart. It can manipulate ideas, imagine alternatives, foresee the future and initiate action. Cocky as it is, however, its true function is as an advisor to the true power behind the throne. Most of our decision making and behaviour is ruled by unconscious, automatic processes and responses, and always will be. We can consciously influence these processes, but never completely overrule them. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume said, "Reason is, and ought to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

For all of this, habits can be changed. In fact, they are changing subtly all the time, getting stronger or weaker day by day, according to how much we feed or starve them. A habit, in its latent form in the brain, is only the encoded template for behaviour in any situation. To have an effect, it still needs to be fleshed out according to the particular circumstances of the moment. This is the point where we can intervene, and make a change.

The best strategy in most cases is to consciously modify a habit each time it surfaces. In this way, we can gradually taper off from a bad habit, or gradually taper into a good one. In building a new habit, it is easier to make use of the existing infrastructure, flawed as it might be, rather than starting from scratch.

So we may still have a chocolate biscuit, but only one, not three. We can't do regular exercise, but we do walk to the shops rather than driving. We can't give up our retail therapy, but we spend less than usual. Gradually, tentatively, a new pattern takes shape, and new possibilities emerge.

This prescription may seem so modest as to be virtually a cop out. Surely, we could hope for more than this, if only we put our minds to it. After all, some people rise from the gutters to become millionaires. Others cure their own cancers through willpower alone. It seems an affront to our intelligence to suggest that taking little steps is all that we can hope to achieve.

In fact, the real challenge is in the fine print. This reads, "Persistence." Mark Twain said it was easy to give up smoking. He had done it hundreds of times. The secret of change is not that we can do something right. It is that we do it right again and again and again and again. Hundreds, probably thousands, of times, despite the inevitable failures in between.

Each time we do something right, we make a little change in our mental wiring. It takes repetition, however, to consolidate that change. We can get spectacular results on a diet over a few weeks or months, just as the advertising suggests, but lasting change can only come after a year or more of good eating.

I tell my students that it will usually take about two years to establish the habit of meditation in their lives. I'm glad to see that my rule of thumb estimate has now been vindicated by science.

The brain scientists now say that it takes about two years for a new memory or skill to be fully embedded in the mind. The crucial work for long-term storage takes place in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is Latin for "seahorse".

Each time we repeat a task, distinct loops of electricity circulate between the hippocampus, the frontal (thinking) brain, the body and those parts of the cerebral cortex related to the activity. The hippocampus knits together the thoughts, feelings and physical actions and stops them fading, as they normally would without further stimuli. For an action to become fixed as a long term skill or a habit, however, it has to ride the seahorse thousands of times over a couple of years. Only if it lasts that long, will the new habit be safely home.

New Year is a hopeful time. We hope to start afresh, and hope for a better year than the last. We may also hope to break an old habit or build a new one, and a New Year is always a good time to start.

If you're resolving to do this, it is good to be realistic about what is possible. Your brain operates magnificently on the basis of the habits, routines and protocols of the past. It loves to do what it has done before, and gets great satisfaction out of doing so.

As a result, your conscious mind can only do so much against the colossal inertia of habit. Change is possible, but you do need to be cunning if you want those changes to last. Don't overestimate the power of your unconscious mind, or underestimate the power of your unconscious habits. We can always change a response in any moment, but only persistence will consolidate it. So count on needing to do what you want to do thousands of times to establish a new habit, and expect the whole process to take at least two years.

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