Use it or Lose it: The Brain’s Appetite for Habit
-Maggie Stephan LPC
There are things I am good at in life and then there are things I have had to choose to cultivate or not cultivate. My freshman year I injured my knee two weeks into a new school and a new geometry class. I remember being so frustrated with trying to catch up on the make up work from that class and also wondering when I was ever going to need that information in my real life. At 14, I decided I was not going to cultivate a love or learning of geometry. Fast forward not quite twenty years, and I am staring at my daughter’s second grade math homework (yes, second grade, I wholeheartedly thought I would make it to her teens before this was an issue) involving vertices and wondering why my brain cannot recall a single thing that I had learned about vertices in my own math experience.
The fact of our brains is they have a very “use it or lose it” mentality to them and the reason for this lies in the term “neuroplasticity”. Our brain learns what we feed it. I had spent almost two decades feeding my brain things besides geometry and so my brain had not retained this information well enough to recall it when faced with second grade math homework. We will define neuroplasticity in this context as the brain’s ability to organize or reorganize itself.
Our brain also loves a shortcut. The network of neurons that make up our brain will try to create as many short responses as it can to save on its energy. Or as we say in therapy quite often, “the neurons that fire together, wire together”. In my geometry example- I was learning these concepts at a time where I had moved schools (stressful), experienced a serious injury (trauma), and then felt like I had fallen behind in class and couldn’t catch up (overwhelm/frustration) which also formed a narrative for what I thought about myself and my abilities in math. Everything about the experience my brain had created in regards to geometry felt negative because everything that had fired within my brain at that time was also negative.
The great news about neuroplasticity is that it gives us the opportunity to rewire what has previously fired and wired together. Thus the consistency of sitting down with my daughter every day after school helping her with her 2nd grade geometry(ish) homework allowed my brain the opportunity to notice another association or path that could be created. When an initial change is made within a previously known patthern, the brain will register it as a new potential. The more that initial change is practiced and reinforced the stronger that connection will become and the more likely the old connection will be to fade and become less prevalent. Thus the more we practice or engage with a new skill or new thought process, the more likely it will be to turn into the brain’s new shortcut or narrative.
Some experts believe that 30-60 consecutive days of the new behavior can rewire the brain. It can be helpful to choose one skill or narrative at a time to focus on. Our brain learns what we feed it – so how we language to ourselves about a process or practice can actually have more impact on our ability to change it. Similarly, our brain is more likely to retain a change when it experiences it as a positive practice and feels attentive to the new practice. Sitting down to practice geometry with my daughter helped me to stay attentive as her parent to the learning process, it made me more aware of my own language in regards to geometry and what needed to shift in how I thought about it, and the joy of watching my daughter mastering a new skill for herself all aided in rewiring my own previous experience.
Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, Dr. Michael Merzenich
“Neuroplasticity: can you rewire your brain?,” Dr. Sarah McKa
Sit with Whit- Future Self Journaling Whitney Goodman LMFT