William James expounds on neuroplasticity and formation of habits in his book “Habit”.
He offers three maxims for the successful formation of new habits:
- The acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.
- Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right … It is surprising how soon a desire will die of inanition if it be never fed.
- Seize the Very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you
aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to
Or can’t seem to think straight?
It’s because when we are in highly stressful situations, the flooding of stress hormones in our brain causes brain freeze.
Stress hormone, Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that is secreted in response to stress.
You know they are present when you feel the following:
A high level of norepinephrine flooding particularly the Anterior Cingulate Cortex – causes indecision, lost of strategy – freezing of our the logical brain. When this happens, it allows emotions the opportunity to run rampant and take control.
Be vigilant of emotions when stress is high!
Neuroplasticity – is based on Donald Hebb’s theory that “neurons that fire together wire together”.
We are big on habits because that’s how the brain works – its default mode is to cut down on the time we need to think before acting, more efficient use of the brain.
Problem is, some of these habits are unproductive.
If unexamined, these habits keep on operating and become our default reactions (unconsciously). As Hebb says, the more they are practised, the more these neurons have the chance to fire together and become more hardwired as pairs – stimuli x causes neuron A to fire with neuron B resulting in emotion y. Emotion y is not how we want to react. What do we do?
Habits are hard to break. The more they are hardwired, the harder they are to be redirected.
If Hebb Theory is true, then the reverse of it must be true too. Therein lies the key to breaking habits. The less we act on a habit (consciously) the less they fire together, the less “walked on” the neural pathway becomes. See faded out neural pathways on the left of diagram. As we train a new habit, the more we practise and walk the same pathway, the more the new habits will be formed, as depicted on the right of the diagram.
If we were to stop for a moment to consider now, we will realise that there are many habitual activities and reactions (especially the unconscious ones) that we have relied on and defaulted to, like the many neural pathways that have formed in our lives (see middle of diagram).
However, to remain sharp in our thinking and relevant in our reactions, we need to be aware of our habits. It’s time to prune those unproductive ones.
Train (and prune) your neutral pathways before the war to serve during the war.
Define your own “war”.