One of my most cherished childhood memories was the annual airing of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. This lively retelling of the history of Santa included a message that has stayed with me all my life. When the young Kris Kringle transforms the Winter Warlock into a thoughtful wizard with a gift of kindness, Winter expresses a desire to change his behavior permanently, but, like many of us, he fears this is too difficult.
Until very recently, neuroscientists believed that the adult brain was fixed and unchangeable. But today’s scientific buzzword is neuroplasticity. ‘Neuro’ means brain, and ‘plastic’ means changeable—neuroplasticity is just a fancy word for brainchanging. Neuroscientists might have thought Brain-Changing was difficult or impossible, but many ordinary people disagreed; they were just waiting for the science to catch up.
Kris Kringle’s advice to the winter warlock about the possibility and path of behavior change has stuck with me all of my life: big changes start with little changes. I could write a lot about the process of habit change, but I doubt I would do a better job than the song I remember so well…
Changing habits is more than changing your mind. The brain and nervous system is similar to a network of electrical circuits and cables. Neuroplasticity, or Brain=Changing literally “rewires” your brain. When we start a new behavior, the wire is thin and patchy. The connection is as slow as an old AOL dial up. But the more we practice a certain behavior the stronger and faster the connection becomes.
When we are born, the brain is a bit like a new computer. The hard drive is almost empty, except for a few essential software programs. After a while, the hard drive gets full and cluttered. In order to “enter new data,” something has to go. The adult brain is similar—new behaviors only get incorporated if they are important enough to earn some valuable brain real estate.
The Brain-Changing Formula of mindfulness, movement and mood are what alert your brain to the desirability of the new behavior. When we are mindful and pay attention, so does our brain. A treadmill is not mindful.
The brain values movement more than anything. It isn’t enough to think about something, or gather information from Google. We have to actually, physically move our body… even if it is something as simple as writing, or talking, or walking.
Finally, mood is crucial. Our brain puts priority on extremes. We learn much more effectively and efficiently when we are happy and calm. The brain interprets our constant mental state of stress and scrambling as a bar to new learning; it needs to take care of immediate and potentially threatening problems before devoting the valuable resources of building blocks and fuel towards learning something new or developing a new habit.
Healthy habits don’t happen overnight. But you can do a lot to facilitate the process. Start by STARTING.
Mark Twain once said “Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”
What better way to lighten the mood than to walk with your dog? You will BOTH benefit. And remember the song: “Just put one foot in front of the other…” It’s a step in the right