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Neuroplasticity: A New Metaphor for Changing Your Brain

Before the advent of neural imaging techniques where the electrical currents caused by brain activity could be measured without cutting a person open, it was believed that neural pathways, especially in the brain, once created were fixed. This gave credence to the medical model for mental disorders (including addiction) as an imbalance in the chemistry caused by these pathways and so medications could “cure” a sick/disordered/broken brain.

What has been discovered is that there is no “magic bullet” for mental problems or dysfunctional thinking and medications at best can ease some of the symptoms while other methods can be employed to actually bring healing. The science finally caught up with what countless people in the helping professions already knew but were limited to “soft science” research to prove. Neural imaging allowed medical scientists to measure and detect that the brain could indeed create new neural pathways allowing people to learn new ways of thinking, feeling, processing and recalling information often leaving old less functional pathways unused. This process is known as neuroplasticity.

When talking about neuroplasticity, the metaphor of a path in a forest is often used. A well-used thought pattern becomes like a well-trod path in a forest. The more the path is trod, the wider, clearer and easier it becomes to travel. Even if the thought pattern is painful to traverse, our default is to continue using it because it is easy, familiar and well trod. In short, it’s a pain we at least know. This is how we get stuck in patterns of depression and anxiety, continue to return to codependent relationships that don’t meet our needs and turn to substances, overeating, using porn, over-Netflixing etc. even when the enjoyment of it has long left us numb. This is how we get an entrenched critical inner voice convincing us we are not enough, the world is against us or some other limiting belief that is not of our own making and ultimately keeps us from reaching our full potential. Even some of our best thoughts that helped us survive at one time in our lives can become limiting and keep us from thriving in our current life.

When we try a new way of thinking, it causes a different kind of pain. It’s like walking through a forest without a path and having to dodge all the brambles, poison ivy, jutting out rocks and spider webs getting on our faces. It’s not just painful but downright uncomfortable. If we keep traveling that new path, however, we learn to dodge these obstacles, it’s not as uncomfortable and eventually a new well-trod path is formed that is just as easy to take as that old one.

I like this metaphor, but I also use a different one to explain how the brain works with neuroplasticity and creating new thoughts:

I once owned a 100 year old home in South Philadelphia. While I was purchasing it, I had a home inspection that told me that I would need to redo all the wiring in the house. It still had the original wiring with the copper wires covered in cloth. This is what they used before plastics were invented to insulate and prevent the hot wires from causing fires.

My thoughts were, “Oh no, that is going to be a huge mess with them ripping wires out of my walls and ceilings, and I can only imagine how much that is going to cost.” I had a contractor come in and tell me that what I was thinking was not the case. “We don’t take out the old wiring. To do so could cause irreparable damage to the wall structures. We leave it right where it is and use the same holes already placed in the wall to run new wiring right along side the old and then just run the current through the new wiring.” It still took time and work to get the job done, but it didn’t cost nearly as much as I anticipated and none of the dreaded mess I feared.

This is how neuroplasticity works. Once we have a memory with all the thoughts, feelings and sensory input attached in our neural network, stored in our neurons (mostly in our brains but also throughout our bodies), it never disappears. It is a part of us just like the old wiring in the house. What we do with any type of growth including recovery is learn to run new thoughts, experiences, memories and beliefs right along side the old ones and choose to run our current through those new paths.

The old wiring will always be there. We can choose at any time to run our energy through those old paths and run the risk of burning down our house, or we can choose to use the more modern wiring that has safer and effective insulation. We may not get the sparks and smoke that the old wiring can cause which some might find an exciting and dramatic way of living on the edge, but we can safely light our lights and run our appliances to fully function without fear (i.e. serenity and emotional sobriety).

The choice is ours.

Every once in a while, there will be a person who speaks in a recovery meeting about being “recovered”. I’m not debating whether those words may be helpful or true to that person in some way. Everyone lives with their own understanding that helps them maintain their recovery. What I do know is that over time, a person may focus so much on the new thoughts and behaviors that come with personal growth that the old ways have all but atrophied and withered to the point where they may not even be recognizable. With addiction or any other fixed mental pattern, those paths will never be gone. It’s important to remember that we do not need to constantly walk around downcast thinking, “what a lowly disgusting addicted worm I am, damaged” to maintain sobriety, but rather, “But for the Love of my Higher Power, do I not return to my old ways.”

Consider this Meditation: Today, I choose to accept and run my energy through the new patterns my Higher Power has installed in my brain and trust the quality of my HP’s craftsmanship. I will turn to my fellows if I get the urge to run my current through those old wires, as my HP has also placed them in my life to help me not burn down my house.

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