Healing: Hardwired for habits: the biology behind our mind traps

You have the power to change your life. Almost every self-help new-age book tells us this. So why is it difficult to turn our genuine wishes into actual realities? Every New Year’s resolution lasts a few days and is forgotten before the month is out. Every attempt at change begins with honest determination but slips away in a few weeks. It’s like we’re set up to fail, rather than succeed.

To understand this, we have to look at how the human brain functions. Each time we apply focused attention to do anything, we create a neural pathway. This is the series of individual neurones that are triggered to carry out an action or create a thought. Repetition forges these pathways: they grow physically larger and stronger. Highly reinforced neural pathways are experienced as habits.

After repeated focus on the same task, the brain begins to make assumptions of its environment. It then operates on this underlying string of assumptions to conserve energy. You can pick up a cup of coffee on your table and sip from it without any conscious effort. This is because your brain has already made assumptions about the environment on your desk and, assessing that there are no exceptional changes to the environment and therefore its assumptions, it activated the neural pathway to sip your coffee automatically. Much of what we do in our everyday life, like brushing our teeth, chewing our food, the internal dialogue we have are all on auto-pilot. As mentioned, with repeated use, these neural pathways grow stronger until they become established as habits. This isn’t because the brain was designed to be lazy, it’s because it’s designed to be efficient. When we rule out the obvious, we can focus on other tasks consciously.

In the allegory that is the Mahabharata, habit is represented by Drona. Drona was guru to both the Pandavas and the Kauravas i.e. both to the divine tendencies (Pandavas) and the reckless, uncontrollable desires of the senses (Kauravas). Habit makes no distinction. There are good and bad ones.

When we set out to create change within ourselves, we’re up against an impressive machinery engineered for efficiency that will fire neural pathways automatically. We literally have to create new pathways. Here, the concept of neuroplasticity comes into effect.  The brain has sufficient ability to change and adapt. We just need to find ways to use its efficiency for our benefit.

There are simple hacks to this:

          Repeated action: carrying out tasks that will re-wire your brain towards good habits, rather than bad ones.

          Repeated thought: focusing on solutions to a problem, rather than going over in endless detail the problems themselves

          Imagination: a powerful way to detail out how you will overcome challenges to meet the desired change

 

There are many techniques in yoga and meditation that help us to focus and live consciously, instead of being entrapped in every day activities.

 

Swami Sukhabodhananda’s upcoming workshop Principles of Healing and Growth Management provides tools and techniques to help us live a better, more fulfilling and conscious life. 

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