Spanish neuroscience pioneer Santiago Ramón y Cajal said, over 100 years ago, that every human being can be the sculptor of his own brain... if they set their mind to it. If we want to transform our minds, and with them our lives, we can. But it takes effort. Changing our mental habits isn’t easy, but it is possible.
Neuroscience has discovered that the key is substitution. The brain can’t simply lose patterns that have been developed over time, but it can overlay them with other, more positive ones.
Nazareth Castellanos, author of the book ‘Mirror of the Mind’ (published by Ensayo), explains that faced with various options, our brain will always choose the one that seems most familiar to it. So you need to take the time and trouble to make new mental habits more familiar than the old.
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She illustrates this with a very simple example. Imagine a colleague at work is called Nerea. You say it hundreds of times until suddenly one day she comes to you and tells you that she’s changed her name to Blanca. After that, the first few times you meet her you will still call her Nerea, because your brain circuitry is weighted towards that name. But you’ll realize your mistake, and resolve to use Blanca in future. Consciously, you’ll substitute the new name for the old. Each time you see her, you’ll concentrate on getting her name right. After a few weeks of this, the brain is wired more effectively for Blanca than Nerea, and soon you’ll use the right name automatically. That sums up how to change a mental habit.
The ‘trick’ is to replace it, intentionally, and keep practising over and over until the new habit is fixed in our minds.
It’s important to set small, clear goals and constantly reinforce them. For example, don’t decide ‘I am going to try not to be so nervous all the time’. Instead, decide to avoid getting nervous when you speak in public, and focus your efforts on that.
Intention and repetition
It’s vital to really want to change, but it’s not enough by itself. To train your mind to follow a new path you have to create the habit. Imagine that your brain is a snowy mountain and that it slides down a certain path, where the snow is now well trodden, making it easy to follow. If you think that this path is not taking you where you want to go, you must modify it.
Intentionally, little by little, you must carve out another path. After a few weeks, the new path will be as well trodden as the old one, which will by then be covered with snow. That’s how to create a new trail, the one you want.
Self-help expert Elsa Punset tells us that: “Getting rid of a bad habit is difficult. But replacing it with another habit is easier.” She recommends first recognizing the enemy, then keeping a diary of each time the negative habit appears and the circumstances that trigger it. Do this for at least a week. Then you can replace it with another, more positive behavior. Savour the satisfaction this brings. Keep repeating the new pattern until it is established.
Meditation is a great ally in helping us become what we want to be. A Harvard University study observed that we find it very difficult to focus our attention, even while performing specific tasks. This means that even if you want to make changes, it’s hard to keep your mind on the job. Nazareth Castellanos suggests that mindfulness, often used in tandem with breathing exercises, can strengthen the areas of our brain involved in attention, intention or purpose, and that 30 minutes of this each day (or almost every day) is enough to reap the benefits. It’s worth it, isn’t it?