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  • Dr. Matt Davis

Neuroplasticity-or why you keep doing the same thing over and over

Water often takes the path of least resistance. When you were little, did you ever make your own miniature water park? My friend Billy and I did just that one day in his backyard. We hand-dug a network of very small trenches and filled it up with water from the creek behind his house before we treated some minnows to enjoy our new creation. What I still remember from that experiment is that somehow not all of the channels filled up with water--it tended to pool in certain spots, or only flow to a certain area. It’s a great memory, though I hate to think about what must have happened to those minnows that summer in the Texas heat after we lost interest in our amazing creation. But it’s the first memory that came to my mind when thinking about neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is a fancy way of saying that your brain can change over time--but it’s not easy. The way neurons fire in our brains is similar to the way that water travels down the path of least resistance. The reason the Colorado River makes such a dramatic (and beautiful) sweep around the bend at Dead Horse Point is because it was easier to go around the huge rock formation in its way. And once the pattern starts, the riverbed cuts deeper and deeper, making it more and more difficult to change course.

Our brains are similar, in that once we have gotten used to certain courses of action, they become almost automatic. Humans are creatures of habit, which is a good thing in many ways. Habits and expectations help our brains know what to expect so that we don’t have to use extra brain power on something ordinary, like your work commute. But while some habits are useful, others prove to be damaging, especially relationship habits.

We all learn our relationship patterns from our first relationships, usually with our parents. Your patterns may have seemed harmless enough, until you realized that the person you fell in love with didn’t appreciate some things about your patterns. It’s normal to re-evaluate things we have learned in childhood, but sometimes patterns in relationships seem so ingrained that we don’t necessarily think of them as something to focus on. Yet, all of us have likely known the anguish that comes from hurting those closest to us by doing something that feels so ordinary. (After you get mad at your partner you’re supposed to avoid each other for a while, right? Because this keeps things from getting worse, right? Right?!!) The truth is, not all of the automatic patterns we have learned from our original families will serve us well in our adult lives, even if they were helpful in our younger years. But how do we change them?

The first step is to become aware of what your patterns are. Being able to reflect on your life and relationships, and being able to receive feedback from others is vital in this challenge. Working with a psychologist can help you see patterns you haven’t noticed before, and can help you take steps toward changing those patterns. Another popular metaphor for neuroplasticity is walking through a field of weeds. The more times you walk down a certain path, the easier the grass will bend, and the more trodden the path will become. Taking a new path isn’t easy--you’re going to walk through some tall weeds and get some stickers in your socks. But the more you practice the easier it will get. Go ahead--try something new. Take a risk and see what happens if you do something different than what you have always done. Recognize the fears you have, talk it out with someone you trust, and then go for it. Contact me today if you’re interested in finding someone to walk through the weeds with you.

Even rivers decide that there may be an even easier path than the initial path of least resistance. I recently heard about a place called Rainbow Bridge in Utah, which for centuries has been considered a sacred space by local Native American tribes. According to the National Park Service, the offshoot of the Colorado River that flows under Rainbow Bridge used to flow around it, likely looking similar to the current scene in Dead Horse Point State Park. However, over time the stream straightened out and found a way through the sandstone rock. Even with rivers, courses can change. Believe that you can change too.

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