Neuroplasticity: Changing Your Life by Changing Your Habits

Frank Bogues -- CEO and Founder of Gotham Life Coach -- NYC's premier neurosplasticity coach

You’re probably aware of the long held scientific wisdom that suggested once our brains were fully developed (at around young adulthood, aged 25) their physiology was pretty much carved in stone. You also may have heard something about the latest buzz-worthy brain science that debunked that theory known as neuroplasticity–basically the brain’s ability to create new cells, rewire existing neural networks in response to new knowledge and reprogram healthy brain regions to take over for those affected by injury. Now of course, that all sounds great, and is great and all that but like anything else, what in the hell does it mean for me practically, in everyday life, you rightly ask. Read on, brainiacs.

Evidence suggests that chemical brain changes – which amount to more neurons firing at once – drive our short-term learning. Let’s say you’ve been practicing that guitar scale and finally got it right at the end of an hour-long practice session…that’s those chemical messengers coding the information into your short-term memory. But then you come back to practice the scale the next day and feel you’ve regressed to square one…why? Because those chemically-induced routines have not yet been performed, replayed or practiced enough to convert themselves into long term memories which are represented by actual physical changes in our brain structure… physical transformation of the shape and routing of our neural networks.  

Now while it’s true that our brains retain their plasticity throughout our lives, it is also true that younger, developing brains (say between our adolescence and young adult ages) have way more synaptic development in their prime than our adult, fully-developed brains. That mass of synapses was necessary as our younger minds wove overly complex pathways and stored information away with all the efficiency of an 8-year-old librarian. As our intelligence amassed and we began to build efficient little memory macros, that synaptic mass dramatically reduced through a process known as synaptic pruning – our brain’s ability to discard, deemphasize or recode overly complex connections no longer needed like “that’s a tree”, “that’s a bird” and “that thing could eat me,” and creating the vital space necessary for relevant transactions like “what kind of bird or tree” and “how can I avoid that pissed off grizzly bear?”

While the associated behavioral implications of all this neuronic silly putty are still in their infancy, the above transformation and efficient reduction of our synaptic mass could easily explain why it’s so difficult to recover from childhood trauma or change poor habits that formed early in our lives. Our brains developed such efficient little firing patterns that ensured complex experiences, emotions and memories have now receded into densely-packed coding blocks that are hard to consciously disassemble or rework for our betterment, but can still unpack with little effort on a moment’s notice due to stress or trauma. Actually working on those long-term pre-adult memories or habits we’d rather not revisit isn’t ideal or really even possible when they’re barfing themselves up at inopportune moments. We have to consciously unpack them in our safe space – preferably while wearing Kevlar in a room lined with bubble wrap. But that’s another coaching article.

Basically, I’m reiterating what you already know: change is hard. The science says that we can’t really just “stop” bad habits; our mind doesn’t work that way. We have to overwrite a habit we don’t want with a habit we do want. This is where coaching comes into play. I work with my coaching clients on creating new little habits and repeating them with the frequency and dedication necessary to transition them from chemical-based to physiologically imprinted actions that overwrite the old, unwanted habit or behavior. Old habits are like old well-worn trails you’ve plodded over and over again; they lie dormant in our brains waiting to be revisited. To keep the old, unwanted trails at bay, you must overwrite them with new, healthier, better habits that serve your better self. This “overwriting” of habit pathways has proven so far to be the most effective method of changing undesirable habits that no longer serve your long-term interests.

The first step to overcoming habits you want to change is to identify those habits that don’t serve you. Sounds so frickin’ easy but this, my braniac friends, is the hardest part. Through some strategic mindfulness coaching I get my clients to step outside themselves and actually see themselves as if an audience member…experiencing their lives and routines from a third-person perspective. Once we begin to really experience the results or consequences of our everyday actions, it becomes easier to choose which ones to quit… or to really want to quit, I should say. Careful not to mistake “Well I shouldn’t really “blah” anymore,” or “My wife/husband tells me I should probably…” for actual determinations. “Should, could or need” will get you nowhere when it comes to change. “Want” and “will” are the operative words. Guilting yourself into action never really works in the long-term… the science tells me so, but again, that’s another article.

Step two is understanding all that “neuroplasticity” crap I spouted above. To change a habit, you have to replace it with a new shinier, healthier one and really see that habit eclipsing your old behavior “in your mind”.  You want to have a strong goal and add some sense-memory weight to that sucker…no not the kind of sense memory that leaves Daniel Day Lewis acting like he can’t fucking walk off set when he’s playing some jackass having problems with his left foot. That shit’s just annoying. This sense memory visualization is you seeing yourself as that fitter person, feeling healthier, wearing those aspirational jeans you haven’t tossed yet. Make it specific… see yourself not smoking or vaping, having more energy, running that half-marathon, wearing tight spandex pants showing off your taut butt cheeks on your bad-ass carbon bike. Attending your reunion looking like you just trained with the damn Avengers. Hell, I don’t know, just really see, feel, hear, smell and Daniel Day Lewis this fucking vision.

Now that you’ve done all that woke shit, make sure you really drill into this new behavior – the more attention you give this healthier habit, the more powerfully it imbeds itself into your neural pathways and buries that unwanted habit. You must link the two in your mind…out with the old, in with the new. For example, when I decided to tackle my sugar addiction I realized that despite committing myself to buying less shit-food at the grocery store that I was still able to cheat by raiding the refrigerator for orange juice, or stealing my wife’s chocolate chips reserved for occasional baking. I still walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge, intending on chugging some OJ (everyone knows chugged calories burn faster than poured ones) but I’d catch myself at the last moment and pour a glass of filtered water instead. I concentrated on the act of pouring water, slowing down my chugging sugar-fix haste and ended up getting closer to the twenty gallons of water Tony Robbins suggested I drink daily to live powerfully and all that shit.*

Now that you’ve begun to really concentrate on this new healthier replacement habit, don’t fuck it all up by getting on your ass when you don’t get it perfect. Give yourself a break and allow for a setback or two. More importantly reward yourself for the things you’re doing right. Reward yourself through self-praise, and maybe an extra episode of Stranger Things. I liken my own course corrections to training my little bitch pug. Admonishing Sophie with “Don’t shit on the floor, why would you shit on the floor” got me nowhere, but a little sweet potato treat for crapping outside… well that fixed the little bitch in a couple of days.

The science says that you get a spike of dopamine every time you reward yourself with your little power phrase, “Damn right I did that” or someone else gives you some sugar “Looking good, Frank”. That little hit of dopamine (whether it comes from you or someone else) can become addictive and start a reward structure for our new healthier habit. This probably explains those rather intimidating ultra-fit people in the gym I’m so jealous of… people tell them how awesome they look with their cantaloupe biceps and Hemsworth abs and then they check themselves out in the mirror and add some self-sugar “damn I do look good.” Your new addiction to looking like a Hemsworth has been locked and loaded.

Now how long does this whole “I kicked some habit ass” process take? Well, it varies from person to person, but to really start clearing the shrubbery and saplings on your new path, while simultaneously burying that old, unwanted route, expect it to take at least one to three months… and as many as six depending on many variables. In my coaching experience, I like to see some real progress within the month and signs of transformative change by three months ideally. It ain’t easy. Real, long-term change takes tremendous dedication and a willingness to be dogged in your determination while also remaining optimistic and supportive of yourself in times of struggle. Hollering at Sophie to not shit on the floor accomplishes nothing. A little scratch behind the ear, a belly rub-rub and a sweet potato treat for Little Push-Face… and you’re golden.

*Reflected amount of water may not factually represent Tony Robbin’s ideal daily intake necessary for “powerfully transformative living” or “definitively unleashing your due destiny… Hackensack?”