I often teach how we can use our own self-directed neuroplasticity in the following ways:
- Conditioning – what the brain does all the time on its own when we’re not guiding it to do something else
- New Conditioning – deliberately cultivating new experiences to create new neural circuitry to create new more adaptive patterns of response in the brain
- Re-Conditioning – carefully juxtaposing positive experiences or memories with previous negative experiences or memories to rewire the old patterns of response, the basis of all therapy
- De-Conditioning – using the default network, the “mental play space” where the brain makes new links, connects the dots in new ways, and generates new insights on its own
There’s an intuitive wisdom in teaching the mechanisms of brain change in the above order.
What the brain does all the time on its own anyway. When we’re not intentionally guiding the installing of new patterns of coping in the brain, or rewiring old patterns, the brain does its own learning and automatically encodes responses to experience, any experience at all, in its neural circuitry.
Conditioning is how our habitual patterns of regulating our emotions, relating to other people, responding to external stressors and our own internal messages develop in the brain in the first place.
It’s essential that we become aware of our own internal habits of thinking, feeling and dealing in order to discern option and make wise choices. Mindfulness and self-compassion practices can be essential tools to create the safety we need to do that, and they are among the most powerful agents of brain change known to science. Once we have created enough safety to prime the brain’s neuroplasticity to be open and receptive to new learning, we can begin to create more response flexibility in the brain through:
Every time we cultivate a gratitude practice, or deepen our listening skills, or strengthen the focus of our attention, or cultivate more self-acceptance, we are using the repetition of those experiences to create new learning, new circuity, new habits of responding to life events, even potentially or previously traumatize events.
New conditioning does not rewire the old conditioning. When we’re stressed out or tired, our brain will default to the old pattern; it’s easier, more efficient for the brain to do what it already knows how to do. But with enough repetition, we create a choice point in the brain, and with reconditioning, we actually can rewire the old circuits. The more stable base we develop with new conditioning creates the safety we need to do that re-conditioning.
The technical name for reconditioning is memory deconsolidation-reconsolidation.
When we “light up” the neural networks constellating a negative memory – meaning we can evoke a visual image of an event, the emotions associated with that event, locate those emotions in our body, and bring to mind negative beliefs about the self triggered by that event – and then deliberately evoke a positive memory or experience that will strongly contradict or disconfirm the original negative memory, and hold those two memories in awareness at the same time, the juxtaposition itself will cause the neurons to fall apart and instantly rewire a fraction of a second later. When the positive is strong enough, it will trump the old memory and rewire it. This is the basis of all trauma therapy.
Re-conditioning doesn’t change what originally happened, but it does change our relationship to what happened. It doesn’t re-write history, but it does rewire the brain. When used in a container of awareness and compassion, it can shift old neural circuitry in the brain, often instantly, often permanently.
When we’ve somewhat mastered the intentional guiding of tools using our focused mode of processing in the brain, we can safely relax our efforts into the de-focused mode of attention of the default network. In the default mode, we’re not deliberately guiding the attention of the brain’s processing. We’re allowing – and trusting – the brain to “play” on its own, creating its own associations and links.
We can experience the default network anytime we’re experiencing a sense of reverie or in our daydreams, the brain just meandering where it wants to. We can use the default network in deconditioning exercises using our imagination, in guided visualizations and guided meditations, to open the brain into what Dan Siegel at UCLA calls “the plane of open possibilities.” We create random change, and use the insights from that meandering and playing of the brain to create new behaviors.
It’s true that the default network sometimes has a bad rap, from meditators who notice the brain’s wandering into a thousand thoughts when we’re trying to concentrate on the breath or on a mantra. That’s what the brain does. And we can drop into worry and rumination in the default network if ongoing concerns about our social self drops us into thoughts – do they like me? Do I belong? Did I just do something stupid in front of other people? What do they think?
Coming into focused attention in the present moment – noticing the sensations in our body or the rhythm of our breathing – will instantly pull us out of the defocused mode of worry and rumination, shaming and blaming. But we can also use the positive aspect of the default network, the imagination and free association, to create new insights, new behaviors, from our own deep intuitive wisdom.
At a meta-level, we begin to develop a sense of ourselves as someone who can use these mechanisms to effectively create brain change. We see ourselves as someone who can learn tools to cope with difficulty, disappointment, even disaster. We can become more resilient; we can move into thriving and flourishing.