Thursday, 13 October 2011

Therapy Thursday: The Pivotal Role of Choice

'Neural plasticity' sounds like a mouthful, but it's actually a pretty simple concept. The fact is, our brains are much more flexible, and capable of change, than we usually believe. A basic understanding of how the brain works can be helpful on an extremely practical level, and underlies much of the work that I do as a counsellor.

In recent years, modern technology, in the form of machines such as MRIs, has enabled researchers to understand the workings of the human brain with ever-greater clarity. Such research has loaned great credence to the old, intuitively appealing notion that 'what fires together wires together'. When we have a thought or experience, thousands of neurons fire simultaneously. The wiring that accompanies this event makes it more natural for those neurons to fire together again in the future. And each time the pattern is repeated, the stronger the wiring gets, until it becomes an automatic response. It is like walking through a field of long grass. The first time you cross the field, the going is fairly tough and your route is not at all obvious. Your next walk across the field is easier: you can retrace your footsteps by following the trampled down grass. The third time is easier still, and so on. Soon your route becomes a path, and the more you walk it, the clearer the path becomes. When we lived in the Kootenays, Alison and I had a long, steep driveway. When it was wet, our tires would leave tracks that pretty quickly turned into ruts. In no time at all, it was almost impossible to go up that driveway without the tires getting sucked into those ruts, and once in the ruts it was very hard to get back out. If we were not happy to drive in those ruts, we had to steer well clear of them from the very start, and forge a new route, which inevitably became a new set of ruts.

Our minds are just like this. And the metaphor of being 'stuck in a rut' is a very accurate and helpful one. All of our habits of thinking, feeling, perceiving, acting and reacting could be seen as networks of neurons that have become accustomed to firing together. The bad news is that this process can easily lead to the perpetuation of really negative thoughts and behaviours. A traumatic event, for instance, by dint of having so powerful an effect on us, can instantly create a lot of wiring, a deep rut that sucks us in again and again, becoming deeper and more difficult to escape over time. Similarly, drugs such as cocaine can make us feel so good so quickly that they too instantly create a lot of wiring. Other drugs, like alcohol or cigarettes, suck us in more insidiously through sheer repetition, but the rut they dig is just as deep, and just as hard to escape. This is one reason why it's so unhelpful to look at an addict with judgement saying, 'why doesn't he just stop?' It's not so easy to reverse that much wiring. Anxiety, stress, panic attacks, repetitive negative thoughts, low self-esteem, and anger are all examples of deep ruts. And ironically, the more we fear or loathe these things, the more wiring our fear builds around them, and the deeper the rut becomes.

The good news is that the brain is flexible so, deep as our ruts may be, we always have a choice. We can choose to avoid the rut and forge a new path. And the more times we follow that new path, the clearer it becomes, until the rut we're in is exactly where we want to be. Freewill means that we can choose who we want to be and how we want to live, but these choices are not abstract, they cannot remain on the level of thought and intention: we make them reality through practice, through the small decisions we make and actions we take every day. Every time we choose to think one thing instead of another, every time we choose to act one way instead of another, we are literally changing our minds and shaping our future selves.

In Sharon Begley's book Train your Mind, Change your Brain (2007), the Dalai Lama talks of how even he, as a child, had times of anger and aggression, and even bullied other children. He did not get to be the person he is today through the blessings of an auspicious birth alone, but by choosing what to believe and how to behave. By acting consistently in accordance with those choices, he has now extinguished the unwanted aspects of himself entirely, and has replaced them with love and compassion, which are now effortlessly his true state of being, a well-worn rutted road of behavioural and emotional response.

Similarly, one of many variations of a First Nations parable goes as follows: A young Cherokee is brought before the tribal elders, who are concerned about his aggressive tendencies. One of the elders takes the young man aside and tells him that his anger is understandable, since all humans have within them two wolves. One wolf is good and peaceable, and the other is evil and angry. The two wolves are in constant battle with one another, since neither is powerful enough to destroy the other. The young man asks the elder "But if they are of equal power, which wolf will win?" And the elder replies, "The one you feed the most."

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