Retrain the Brain, Change the Habits

Retrain the Brain, Change the Habits

Have you ever wondered why habits are so hard to break, especially the bad ones?

The habits that human beings follow might have a positive impact on behaviours, but they can have a negative effect on social relations. Human habits are complex, and the significance of habits has been demonstrated in various behaviours across all domains; for example, our work or exercise routine, our morning walks, our route to work, our eating habits, our favourite restaurants and how we interact in our environment. Changing habits to retrain the brain can be challenging since our behaviours are not only hardwired in our physical activity. The repetition of these behaviours has a significant effect on our brains.

The Brain

As neuroscience is discovering, the brain’s ability is greater than the best computer invented by man. The brain is a complex piece of machinery, and the approximately eighty-six billion neurons in the brain are eager little individuals that create their little habits based on our repeated thoughts, feelings, and actions. The brain operates using chemicals, and different behaviours result in the production of the various chemicals that are released into the brain. The feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is well known, but dopamine is also a neurotransmitter involved in reinforcement and plays a part in developing and reinforcing our habits. How we feel is a result of the chemicals in our brain. Antidepressants work through balancing neurotransmitters, the chemicals that affect mood and emotions. An individual with depression has a lower level of the serotonin neurotransmitter. Serotonin is a multifaceted and complex neurotransmitter that is known to affect mood and cognition. Our actions and environment can impact our mood because of these brain chemicals and the neurons and their synaptic connections. The synapses connect the eighty-six billion neurons in the brain throughout the nervous system to other neurons in the body.

Repeat Behaviours

The more we repeat a behaviour, the more synaptic connections we associate with that behaviour, and this affects specific parts of the brain. The repeated behaviour results in stronger synaptic connections, which gives the neurons enough ‘juice’ to create an action potential. The release of an action potential plays a crucial role in carrying messages from the brain to other parts of the body. The voltage of the action potential allows the neuron to fire from the neurons’ pre-synapse membrane to the post-synapse, with neurotransmitters being released in the space between. The neural networks become more substantial when we repeat a behaviour or thought. The behaviour or thinking develops into a habit, providing a strong stimulus to cause the cells to work together, becoming bigger and better. This explains why with repetition, new information eventually becomes memorised and long-lasting, resulting in the brain having more synaptic connections in the relevant area.

The Synapse

Four Major Brain Lobes

And just to refresh your memory, the four major lobes of the brain are:

The Frontal Lobe – includes the neocortex and controls voluntary movement, expressive language, and higher-level executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive skills that include planning, organising, self-monitoring and managing responses to achieve a goal.

The Parietal Lobe – is essential for sensory perception, including taste, hearing, sight, touch, and smell. It is an area that interprets input from other regions of the body.

The Occipital Lobe is for visual processing, including visuospatial processing, distance, and depth perception, determining colours, object and face recognition and memory formation.

The Temporal Lobe processes auditory information, memory encoding (learning from previous experiences) and the processing of affect/emotions, language, and some visual perceptions.

Brain Lobes retrain brain

Brain Associations – Shape our Thinking

The input of sensory impressions affects many areas of the brain, and their associations affect the neural network of our experiences. And it is not as if one experience is isolated; when we think, we often associate multiple inputs, which can affect our mood. For example, a mother may enjoy the scenery and fantastic weather walking in a park. She feels good, but then she hears a mother shouting at a child, and this causes her to remember the time she was depressed after a baby was born and how she used to yell at the older sibling. The child in the park starts crying and holding onto his mother’s skirt, apologising and looking distressed. The mother remembers a blue dress she wore one day and how her son made it dirty by holding onto it whilst sobbing and saying sorry for upsetting her. She can see her 2-year-old son’s large blue eyes staring at her with tears streaming down his cheeks. She gets angry with herself for being such a horrible mother, and she regrets her son’s upbringing and knows it is why she is estranged from him now. She feels miserable and, looking at the present scene of the mother and child, she believes she is the worst mother in the world and deserves to be lonely and alone; this is her life now.

How did this mother go from having a lovely walk in the park to feeling sad, unloved, alone and wanting to cry?

Neural Networks

We can thank our habits, episodic memory, and brain associations for this change in mood. The brain responds to input by activating a neural net to the sensory organs and triggers thoughts associated with that memory. The mind is activated and reconnects to that memory. Any event or people related to that neural net of the experience will trigger the part of the brain where those old circuits are lurking, waiting to be woken up by our episodic memory. As we remember, our consciousness will activate the cluster of neurons associated with the memory. The brain’s neurons will fire in a particular sequence and chemical combinations, and we are consciously reminded of a memory hiding in the unconscious, and our mood is affected.

How the Past affects the Present

How we respond to daily stimuli is affected by past interactions. We navigate our environment using a combination of semantic (language or logic) knowledge. The more often we use the same information, the more solid that data is hardwired into the brain. As we repeat the same thoughts daily, the same neural networks will become more potent, automatic, unconscious, familiar and habitual. We start to automatically think of ourselves in a certain habitual way. The neural networks result in an unconscious response caused by the environment and the memories it awakens. We start to operate unconsciously on an autopilot created by the chronic neural networks we have developed. Once a thought activates a particular neural circuit, it causes an automatic sequence of thought forms, and we are no longer living in the present but instead are feeling and thinking from past events. And the more we live from past habitual thinking, the more those associative neural networks will be strengthened. The power of these neural networks is why it is so hard to change behaviours or negative thoughts. We have spent a lifetime developing and maintaining these neural networks, and they are hardwired into our thought processes. When we decide to attempt change, we are strongly resisted by billions of neurons and their associated neural pathways.

How can the mother stop thinking she is the worst mother in the world?

She must change her thinking by retraining her brain to create positive networks and associations, which takes time and a lot of effort. She must also be willing to develop a different personality which may require her to change her behaviour, values, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions of her environment. Some of the genetic predispositions from her parents and upbringing may need to be challenged as she chooses to form a new identity and image of herself. She may focus instead on the positive memories, even using photographs that show happier times with her son. She may repeat and use a daily strategy to focus on these positive memories, so they take precedence over the negative ones. She may decide to contact her son and ask if she may see him as she wants to apologise or discuss the past. There are many possibilities. But, it is up to her to make that change while accepting that the habits and the associated brain networks created over a lifetime will take some time to transform.

To Sum Up

Associations and repeat behaviours form neural networks that create habits of thought and behaviour. But we could retrain the brain if we introduced new and more positive neural networks and their associated memories into the brain. Our synapse may be formed by genetics and what we have learned over a lifetime, but that is not the end of development. Neuroscience has shown the brain can change; the brain and the mind are not static; they are forever changing. An individual can decide on which type of circuits they want to be in action. Suppose we repeat positive behaviours and are vigilant and control negative thoughts and even transfigure them into positive thoughts and associations. The new neural networks thus created will be associated with positivity and empowerment. The more we develop these types of networks, the more these positive patterns will become our habitual way of thinking and living.

Liz McCaughey

MC, MSc

If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

Find out more about Liz here

Related Articles:

Halo Effect and Social Psychology

Halo Effect and Social Psychology

What is Halo Effect and Social Psychology

The Halo effect & social psychology within psychological processes is an interesting phenomena. It is based on the fact that the global evaluation about a person is interlinked with judgment about specific traits that the person displays. We all succumb to the halo effect in that we often see a person who is very friendly and pleasant to look at so we will judge them as being trustworthy and kind.

Below is an article about the Halo Effect which was written by Dr Jeremy Dean for PsyBlog. PsyBlog was created by Dr Jeremy Dean to help bring psychological issues to the general public. The articles are written simply and clearly for the understanding of al. The original article was called ‘Antibiotic-associated encephalopathy’ but thanks to the website PsyBlog the original article has been written in more easy to understand language. Halo Effect & Social Psychology

The Halo Effect: When Your Own Mind is a Mystery

The idea that global evaluations about a person bleed over into judgements about their specific traits.

The ‘halo effect’ is a classic finding in social psychology. It is the idea that global evaluations about a person (e.g. she is likeable) bleed over into judgements about their specific traits (e.g. she is intelligent). Hollywood stars demonstrate the halo effect perfectly. Because they are often attractive and likeable we naturally assume they are also intelligent, friendly, display good judgement and so on. That is, until we come across (sometimes plentiful) evidence to the contrary.

In the same way politicians use the ‘halo effect’ to their advantage by trying to appear warm and friendly, while saying little of any substance. People tend to believe their policies are good, because the person appears good. It’s that simple.

But you would think we could pick up these sorts of mistaken judgements by simply introspecting and, in a manner of speaking, retrace our thought processes back to the original mistake. In the 1970s, well-known social psychologist Richard Nisbett set out to demonstrate how little access we actually have to our thought processes in general and to the halo effect in particular.

Likeability of lecturers

Nisbett and Wilson wanted to examine the way student participants made judgement about a lecturer (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Students were told the research was investigating teacher evaluations. Specifically, they were told, the experimenters were interested in whether judgement varied depending on the amount of exposure students had to a particular lecturer. This was a total lie.

In fact the students had been divided into two groups who were going to watch two different videos of the same lecturer, who happened to have a strong Belgian accent (this is relevant!). One group watched the lecturer answer a series of questions in an extremely warm and friendly manner. The second group saw exactly the same person answer exactly the questions in a cold and distant manner. Experimenters made sure it was obvious which of the lecturers alter-egos was more likeable. In one he appeared to like teaching and students and in the other he came across as a much more authoritarian figure who didn’t like teach at all.

After each group of students watched the videos they were asked to rate the lecturer on physical appearance, mannerisms and even his accent (mannerisms were kept the same across both videos). Consistent with the halo effect, students who saw the ‘warm’ incarnation of the lecturer rated him more attractive, his mannerisms more likeable and even is accent as more appealing. This was unsurprising as it backed up previous work on the halo effect.

Unconscious judgements

The surprise is that students had no clue whatsoever why they gave one lecturer higher ratings, even after they were given every chance. After the study it was suggested to them that how much they liked the lecturer might have affected their evaluations. Despite this, most said that how much they liked the lecturer from what he said had not affected their evaluation of his individual characteristics at all.

For those who had seen the badass lecturer the results were even worse – students got it the wrong way around. Some thought their ratings of his individual characteristics had actually affected their global evaluation of his likeability.

Even after this, the experimenters were not satisfied. They interviewed students again to ask them whether it was possible their global evaluation of the lecturer had affected their ratings of the lecturer’s attributes. Still, the students told them it hadn’t. They were convinced they had made their judgement about the lecturer’s physical appearance, mannerisms and accent without considering how likeable he was.

Common uses of the halo effect

The halo effect in itself is fascinating and now well-known in the business world. According to ‘Reputation Marketing‘ by John Marconi, books that have ‘Harvard Classics’ written on the front can demand twice the price of the exact same book without the Harvard endorsement. The same is true in the fashion industry. The addition of a well-known fashion designer’s name to a simple pair of jeans can inflate their price tremendously.

But what this experiment demonstrates is that although we can understand the halo effect intellectually, we often have no idea when it is actually happening. This is what makes it such a useful effect for marketers and politicians. We quite naturally make the kinds of adjustments demonstrated in this experiment without even realising it. And then, even when it’s pointed out to us, we may well still deny it.

So, the next time you vote for a politician, consider buying a pair of designer jeans or decide whether you like someone, ask yourself whether the halo effect is operating. Are you really evaluating the traits of the person or product you thought you were? Alternatively is some global aspect bleeding over into your specific judgement? This simple check could save you voting for the wrong person, wasting your money or rejecting someone who would be a loyal friend.

Or perhaps, even if you do check, you’ll still never know…Gulp.

Article Source: PsyBlog

Curated by Liz McCaughey©Copyright 2018 aMindset.HK

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