Initiating Lasting Change: What are Neural-pathways?

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control actions we do with little thought. Neural-pathways are like a little computer program that enables us to do many of the things we do, each day, with little effort. For instance, we don’t have to think, in order to be able to walk. We drive our cars with very little methodical thought about each and every action. Many of the neural-pathways in our brain are necessary for our existence – others don’t necessarily serve us well.neural-pathways

Neural-Pathways: Metaphors

Imagine roads built in the early days of our country. They typically wound along river banks, and were seldom the shortest route. They were created by one person following the path of another, and over time, a path was created. The foot path became a path for horse and buggy, which eventually became a road for cars. Before long that was the accepted route, and nobody gave any thought to there being a better route. We know that rivers take the path of least resistance, and in reality humans do too. So when we create a way of doing something, we are likely to continue doing that until someone or something calls it into question. Neural-pathways in our brain are likewise used with little thought for their efficiency until they are called into question.

For a more modern analogy for neural-pathways, is to compare it to a  computer program. The majority of us have learned our computer skills by trial and error, rather than reading the manual or taking a course. We continue to do things the way we have learned – we may not even know it is inefficient. We have not learned to use the shortcut keys and maybe don’t even know they are there. Some day someone shows us a short-cut but the familiar is so entrenched in our behavior that we can’t even remember to use that short-cut, and so we struggle for months and months to relearn something we have been doing inefficiently for years.  That is because of the neural-pathways we have created in our brain.

Benefits of Neural-pathways

We could never get on with life, if we had to think through every single thing we do. So our brain creates neural-pathways to help us do certain things on autopilot. We don’t need to think, we just do it. The brain creates a default models or neural-pathways that map out a given behavior and we will repeat the behavior again and again without giving it a second’s thought. This is how neural-pathways work, and we are not inclined to question our neural-pathways. When we begin to question – we become open to identifying our neural-pathways and become more aware of ineffective neural-pathways.

So, here we are. We have created the habit of stuffing food in our mouth without even thinking of the long term effect of that decision. We behave based on our neural-pathways. We may be so attuned to it that we may be watching TV or driving – we could eat our double burger and fries without even taking one look at the food. We could squeeze the packet of horseradish sauce, intended for our burger onto our French Fries, and until we put it in our mouth we wouldn’t even notice. Our fingers that came in contact with the sauce – recognized it as ketchup, because we didn’t look and established neural-pathways recognize textures. Neural-pathways play an important roll in our ability to multitask. We were preoccupied with driving or watching TV. The default neural-pathway has served us well – eating the food is no problem. The neural-pathways prompt our responses and gives us the illusion of effectiveness.  But now – HORSERADISH SAUCE on our fries. That does not fit with the default neural-pathway and it awakens our senses.

This does not match our internal map of what fries are to taste like and we may immediately react – using yet other default neural-pathways.  The default neural-pathways tell us ‘spit it out’ and we may…should we be alone. If we are in public, we may suddenly become self-aware and monitor our behavior. When we begin to monitor our behavior we are no longer operating from our default neural-pathways. We have shifted from a state of semi-conscious awareness to a heightened level of consciousness.  Now we think, then we act. When we think about our actions we are no longer depending on the neural-pathways.

Neural-pathways are used for automated responses. Neural-pathways that control bodily functions such as heart beat and breath are crucial for our survival. Although we may be able to alter our breathing by conscious thought, we cannot override the neural-pathways that control our bodily functions to the point that we could, for instance, stop breathing completely.

Neural-pathways Interrupted by Novel Stimulus

Hence, a novel stimulus can be one of the ways we become aware that our default neural-pathways are not servicing us well. The brain is now willing to brainstorm for solutions. It is willing to accept new information, it is willing to explore solutions.  Now, in a heightened state of awareness, we are more willing to eat the broccoli, not the burger and fries – because we become conscious of the consequences of our actions.

We know what we want, and we know the results of what we don’t want. However, it isn’t that easy to rewrite the software, or default neural-pathways, that are creating the behaviors that are bring the results we don’t want. In order to change a behavior – especially any behavior used on a regular basis, we must change the neural-pathways that underlay that behavior. That is why change is not easy!