Key Facts: How Your Brain Adapts to Learn New Ideas or Behaviors
Several factors can make (or break) the deal in terms of setting the stage for your brain to adapt to learning new ideas or behaviors.
1. When resistance to change is moderate to low.
Alas, learning is both simple and complex.
The design of your brain makes you a paradox of sorts. For example:
* On the one hand, your brain has a natural orientation toward learning from day one of your life, and, as recent findings in neuroscience reveal, a healthy brain remains hungry to learn throughout life.
* On the other hand, your brain has a built-in resistance to change, particularly after the first years of life, when the brain forms a customized set of neural patterns that act as selective perception filters.
Your subconscious relies on these customized neural patterns to interpret the world you experience. Based on these neural patterns, or early survival-love maps, however, the subconscious makes highly selective ‘decisions’ about whether to accept new learning or certain types of change.
Whereas some resistance to change is healthy and natural, high resistance blocks learning and change. More often, resistance has to do with fear, limiting beliefs, and protective or defensive strategies that have outlived their usefulness, yet remain imprinted in memory cells of the body.
There is another reason that links learning to uncomfortable or painful sensations that, automatically, release hormones such as cortisol, the stress hormone.
* For human beings, learning is inherently connected to deep inner strivings to matter, to meaningfully connect to life, contribute value, and so on.
* Thus, learning situations can activate core existential fears, such as fear of inadequacy or rejection, and your brain has a built-in tendency to push away what causes discomfort or anxiety, and to draw nearer to what causes pleasurable feelings of safety and love.
Paradoxically, however, stress enhances your brain’s ability to learn, and thus potentially your performance as well, providing you consciously keep the stress at manageable levels.
To adapt a new behavior, a conscious-you must necessarily train your brain to sustain an optimal state of mind in the most taxing circumstances. The uncomfortable feelings, if they don’t scare you away, are action signals that invite you to learn an essential skill, and that is, the ability to get comfortable with the ‘uncomfortable’ feelings you feel when you face challenges.
2. When you feel safe enough to learn.
The wiring of your brain makes you a learning-being by nature, however, when you do not feel safe, your brain switches ‘learning mode’ off and ‘protective mode’ on.
This has to do with the fact that your brain is always either in one state or the other. (Note: A type of ‘learning’ takes place is ‘protection’ mode as well, however, this is a radically different type of learning that involves ‘either-or’ behavior patterns, protective ‘fight or flee’ strategies, and the like.)
You cannot control the body’s survival response. The primary directive of your subconscious mind, after all, is to ensure your survival. This is automatic.
There is something you can do, however!
Your sense of safety in the moment is what determines whether or not your subconscious mind will activate your body’s survival response that, like a dictator, performs a coup d’étatof all the systems of your body.
You can control your sense of safety in a given situation. How?
* For one, by identifying and replacing reactive patterns that are associated with your early survival-love map with life-enriching new ones.
* Recognizing that, unless you do, your subconscious can act like an over-protective parent to block any new behaviors, in particular, ones that activate core fears imprinted in your survival-love map memory.
Learning means opening yourself up to a wide array of information to include information that is not pleasant. Not knowing something that someone else does, in itself, can send shivers down the spine of many.
If you stubbornly resist your own attempts to implement new changes, it may be that you attempting to make simple adjustments to old subconscious patterns when the situation calls for some new learning instead. A deeper healing, the kind that breaks strongholds of fear, makes conscious the subconscious, and brings about transformative change may be necessary. More on that later…
3. When you want to learn.
Learning new behaviors often involves new ways of thinking and relating. Thus, it takes more work, and more time to learn a new behavior.
It also takes more time before the information is transferred from the short term memory of the conscious mind, where it can feel more like a struggle (perhaps due to its limited memory space?), to the long term memory of the subconscious mind.
Your willingness to pay attention, to stay focused on the tasks at hand, and maintain your momentum and enthusiasm are essential.
To do the required work to learn a new behavior, therefore, you first must want, really want to do so! Depending on what you want to change, you will need at least one good reason to energize the passion you need for the neurons of your brain to ‘fire and wire’ and get the job done.
More often than not, humans do not change until the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of changing. You must come to the place where everything inside you proclaims something akin to the following:
* “Things have got to change! I will no longer accept the excuses in my head!”
* “What do I need to learn now to optimize my chances?”
* “What resources do I already have to make the change?”
* “What do I need to change inside to make this possible?
In other words, your habitual thinking patterns and beliefs matter.
Your thoughts or the words you speak to others, to your subconscious, are your wants. You and your subconscious mind are continually in communication, sending messages to another. In a sense, your thoughts are messages you are sending to your subconscious.
In return, your subconscious activates certain images in your mind, along with emotions and felt sensations in your body. Your feelings and sensations are the mind of your body communicating back. They tell you where you are, at any given moment, with regard to where you really want to be.
For the person with social anxiety, in the example used in Parts I and II, what they ‘really want’ (and are subconsciously communicating to their brain) is to ‘know when there is danger’ (i.e., certain looks on faces of others) in order that they may ‘flee to avoid feeling the emotion of fear’ and the sensations it activates in their body.
The focus of their thoughts, beliefs, wants, for the most part, is what produces more of what they don’t want, however.
Their subconscious mind is providing them with an unnecessary service. What is more, they are at risk of turning their otherwise amazing subconscious mind into a highly creative, virtual alarm system (that can turn social anxiety into a debilitating phobia or two)!
4. When your beliefs support change.
The beliefs you hold in memory, whether conscious or subconscious, also tell your subconscious what you really want. Whether new learning takes place or not often depends on your attitude toward the behavior you want to change, and perhaps also toward change itself.
Here are a few questions to look for any limiting beliefs or toxic thinking patterns:
* What feelings do you have about the uncomfortable feelings associated with change?
Uncomfortable inner feelings and sensations naturally accompany learning of a new behavior. Your subconscious, the part of your mind that acts as the operating system of your body, relies on your thoughts and beliefs to know how to interpret, sort or filter most of your experience of events. They form your perceptions.
* Who do you hold responsible for creating happy feelings inside you?
Many persons are trapped into thinking they have to complain or guilt others into caring about them. The subconscious appears to treat soft-wired data as tentative commands. You need to consider adopting an attitude that proclaims, “I will change how I treat myself and life. I will focus on what change I can control and make, and I will let go of change that is not in my control, i.e., changing or “fixing” others.
* What thinking patterns are you practicing?
Thinking patterns are rooted in beliefs that, like a steering wheel on a vehicle, drive your life. Your thoughts are an ongoing stream of messages that let your subconscious know what you want, believe, your concerns, fears, desires, and what you most want to focus on in the moment.
If you think you cannot handle a situation, or you associated feelings of anger or impatience when a situation makes you “uncomfortable,” then your thoughts are activating dynamic processes inside your body that turn your beliefs into your reality in the moment.
If you feel less than or inferior when learning new ideas or behaviors, learning can be a daunting experience. You need to consciously develop a healthy attitude toward learning itself, to think of it, for example, as ‘a friend who challenges you because they care.’
Your subconscious cannot interpret (most) events you experience. It turns to your interpretive thoughts or the pool of accrued beliefs in your early survival-love map. Simply put, according to our beliefs, so goes your life.
Like a genie, your subconscious seems to say, ‘your wish is my command.’
A very helpful belief to adopt, for starters, is to think and affirm: ’Challenges and problems are opportunities for growth and learning!’
5. When what you want is backed by action.
Once the mind of your body ‘accepts’ the new learning, it is integrated at deeper levels that operate subconsciously.
* What skills are you practicing, however?
Your brain, like your body, operates under a “use it or lose it” principle.
To the extent new learning is practiced, change processes proceed to then either strengthen or weaken what was learned.
While the brain is quick and open to learning and adaptation, it also likes to be efficient. In the process of strengthening the neural pathways that you most use, in similar ways, the brain weakens the connections between the cells that supported old activities, or ways of thinking and behaving, that you are no longer using as much or have ceased using altogether.
* What activities are you most immersed in?
Usually the ones you are most interested in are the ones that produce the most feel-good feelings for you. Your actions are the best indicators of the thoughts, wants and beliefs are emphasizing inside you, in other words, the ones that have the most influence in shaping your actions and life.
Constant immersion enhances certain abilities and as these “abilities” are enhanced, it naturally associates more and more feel-good feelings with the new behavior. Simultaneously, a focused attention on stopping certain patterns causes your subconscious to eliminate or “prune” these neural pathways.
* By default, these processes occur automatically, thus, they are controlled by the subconscious mind.
Did you know, however, that you can direct this practice, choosing to associate ‘feel-good’ feelings with a behavior you want increase, and ‘feel-bad’ feelings with a behavior you want to eliminate.
What is the point of having a prosperous career, yet in poor physical health? Or being in excellent health and fitness, yet your love relationship or other key relationships are detached iceboxes or tumultuous roller coasters? It just means, in the former case, that you’re thinking the thoughts of a wealthy person, but not the thoughts of a person who is healthy, trim and fit; or, in the latter case, that you’re thinking the thoughts of a healthy and fit person, but not the thoughts of a person who creates vibrant and meaningful relationships.
The more you think thoughts that associate what you want with emotions of gratitude, celebration, confidence or pleasure, the more this will bump your aspirations higher in priority to – and you will find yourself compelled to take action to manifest or bring yourself closer to them.
Conscious action combined with attitude?
All three ways of adapting to change are amazing assets, yet can also be liabilities.
* Most of the processes involved in adapting to new changes, or expanding, strengthening or weakening an existing behavior occur subconsciously.
They are assets as dynamic processes that not only help you survive, but also enrich your life with learning and action that helps you create a meaningful and intellectually stimulating life. They can be liabilities, however, when abandoned to subconscious neural patterns that contain a host of misinformation, if not plain lies, illusions, or misconceptions that mislead your subconscious mind, like a bogus treasure map, to look for treasure in the wrong places.
* Some new behaviors, naturally, are more emotionally taxing than others.
The part of your mind that runs the autonomic processes of your body, the subconscious, has a built-in overall resistance to change, and is especially resistant to adding totally new behaviors.
Adopting new ways of relating to your fears to break an addictive pattern or a phobia is, perhaps, the most challenging. When is comes to healing an unwanted behavior pattern, such an addiction or a phobia, this involves deeper, more transformative change.
Life for the physical brain and body is a continuous balancing act, and for your mind and emotions that means learning to regulate of a host of seemingly conflicting impulses to achieve balance, i.e., emotional mastery (emotion regulation).
* The experience of life can be understood as a paradox of sorts.
The natural orientation of your brain makes you hungry to learn throughout life. Yet, your brain uses a highly selective system that filters learning, and, indeed, can become rigidly resistant to new learning or change.
Your brain is designed to ‘struggle’ with the tensions (and discomfort) that are critical aspects of learning and growing your capacity to learn, to stay engaged and open and vulnerable, so that your brain can adapt to the challenges of new and complex types of learning and change.
Successful people know how to feel their fears and to use them as springboards for energizing their momentum toward their dreams and aspirations.
* The good news is that you are a learning-being at heart.
New thoughts or interpretations about your life, once “accepted” by your body are integrated and can become part of subconscious processes that transform your life.
Your willingness to pay attention, therefore, and to stay focused on your goals is especially vital to learning new behaviors. Your attitude, which essentially has to do with the overarching emotional state that your thoughts produce in any given time or situation, determines whether you quit or stay with a task to learn it. In other words, your habitual thinking patterns and beliefs matter.
* Happiness is an interpretation of a mind that is consciously aware and authentically connected to the body and heart.
In a sense, emotions are a choice, whether conscious or subconscious. Your brain is wired with a full range of “emotions” and you are wired to “feel good” about your self and life, not just to meet your physical needs for nourishment, but also to fulfill deeper needs to live a life of purpose and meaningful connection.
Your thoughts create emotional ‘standards’ that either free or limit your choices and actions. Make them liberating.