Ok, I am not going to cover this in one quick post, but I’ll give the basic overview as best I can — to be expanded on (ad infinitum) later. Our brains are, as we call it in neuroscienceland (hereafter affectionately referred to on occasion as “geek world”):
Yeah, ok, what does this mean? Well, they kind of used to think that the brain was sort of fixed and stable after a certain age. You know the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This was the view. And there is some reason for it. Every time we do something, neurons fire (see the picture above — this is what is going on in our brains, and isn’t it pretty?). And as we say in geek world, “If it Fires, it Wires.” In other words, the more times a neural connection is made, the stronger it gets. In other words, it wires.
Being from a northern climate, I like to think of neural pathways like the bobsled runs of the brain. The more we use them, the slicker the pathways get, and the faster the impulses go. Like pouring water on a bobsled run to make the ice very smooth. This is due to a process called “myelnation” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myelin). Myelin is basically an electrically insulating material that forms a layer around the axon of a neuron. Think about a basketball player practicing 3 point shots again and again and again. Every time he makes the movements, myelin is added to those particular pathways. And by the way, sports research has shown that this disciplined practice of particular movements over and over is key to mastery.
9/30/13 update: it turns out that myelination does not play as big a role in neuroplasticity as I thought (although the take-away for coaching remains the same). Instead, let me quote Norman Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself ) “When two neurons fire together (or when one fires, causing the other to fire), chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly.” It’s not the myelin coating that creates the strong neural pathway, it is the firing itself. And neural pathways that get used a lot tend to be in a state of readiness to fire, their connections strengthening with usage over time.
Myelin is not completely out of the picture though. Myelination is part of what creates dominant neural pathways such as those for language. The developing brain has a LOT of myelination going on. And the more myelinated the pathway, the more efficient the impulse is, because myelin is like insulation around a bundle of electrical wires. The more insulated, the more efficient, because less of the electrical impulse gets lost along the way.
There is some evidence that myelination continues into adulthood and is thus part of the process of developing mastery and expertise. But other aspects of neuroplasticity also play a role. For example, with practice, we use fewer neurons to do tasks than we do at the beginning, focusing and specializing our efforts and leaving more of the brain available for other things. Also, the more sensory input we can associate with a certain habit or behavior, the stronger the pathways for that habit will be.
Thus, things we have done again and again are wired into our brains strongly. Old patterns may be running down some pretty slick neural pathways. And as I said, we kind of used to think that was it. But what they’ve found in the last 20-30 years or so is increasing evidence that the brain can change and find astonishing new ways to do things.
I hope you are saying “Duh” to yourselves right now, because DUH, that is exactly what we do in coaching! We help people create new neural pathways for positive behaviors. It just takes some work and support because you are often working with well-worn paths in the brain. My sense is that this is also the reason it is far more effective to focus on creating new positive actions that stopping old negative ones. It’s hard to stop the bobsled when it gets going. But if the old run doesn’t get used as much because you are turning the bobsled in a new direction, the old run will eventually become less slick and strong and yes, even die off from lack of attention. And the new pathway will get stronger each time it is used.
As coaches, we hold our clients in this choice point again and again. Which pathway will it be? Some clients really need a lot of help and accountability as they strive to create new patterns. And some just need a little push, and off they go!
It’s December and it snowed in Minnesota today 🙂