Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.
Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, Mark Twain
For those of us with an interest in human performance, behavior and the nervous system, there’s a powerful turn of phrase that’s been showing up with increasing frequency in both professional and popular press. When writers describe the plasticity of the brain and the way that neurons respond to repeated stimulation, they tell us “cells that fire together, wire together.”
It’s a snappy phrase that tells us a great deal, not only about the working of the brain and nervous system, but also about how we learn and why our lives so often become mired in habit. The implications are clear and powerful; circuits that are used frequently become stronger. Knowledge, movements and behaviors that are repeated become etched deeper and deeper into our mind-bodies. States of mind become traits of personality.
Of course, this magic phrase is stated in the positive. It gives us instruction in how to create new circuits, new patterns, new knowledge and new behavior: Simply do the reps, over and over, until the appropriate neural connections “wire together” and then you’ve got it. Your skill-behavior-habit is now established and you can put it to use and move on to other challenges.
But still, the prescription leaves us hanging. After all, just because we know how to build a circuit or pattern doesn’t necessarily mean that we get the ultimate result that we’re looking for. If our initial reps are sloppy or inappropriate, we may well end up building habits of movement or behavior that are awkward or maladaptive. And the more we practice such patterns, the deeper they’ll become. After awhile, we may well become frustrated by our inability to transcend our training. Neurologically and metaphorically, we are stuck in a rut.
So, knowing how to build a circuit, pattern or behavior is not enough. We also need to know how to revise those circuits and patterns, to abandon habitual movements and behaviors in favor of something that works better. Fortunately, the answer lies in the inverse of our original phrase. This time we say “neurons that fire apart, wire apart.” Circuits that are allowed to go dormant tend to atrophy. If we can persuade a neuron to stimulate a different pathway, the original circuit will begin to weaken and decay, leaving room for us to create new knowledge, new movements and new behaviors.
the how: high quality reps
Of course, changing our movement and behavior circuits can sometimes feel like a monumental, almost impossible task, especially if our habit-grooves have been etched deeply over time. In fact, most of us are at least partly addicted to many of the habits, inclinations and behaviors in our lives. So how do we get neurons to “fire apart” when they’re physically committed to firing together? The answer, not surprisingly, is reps, especially high-quality reps.
We know what needs to be done. Athletic training and neuroscience research over the last several decades has revealed the formula for a high-quality rep:
precision (stimulating the exact circuit)
stable, focused attention (attentional density)
feedback (fast and specific)
In other words, there has got to be a high level of focused attention and effort. We need work, struggle, striving and consistent execution of novel firing patterns. There can be no sugar-coating it; habit revision is likely to be more challenging than the original habit formation. After all, the original neural circuit was etched on a younger brain and the grooves may run deep. Any pattern, movement or behavior that gets anywhere near the original may well slide down the slippery neurological slope, back into habit.
So how do we get the pivotal neurons to “fire apart?” Some research shows that when it comes to busting up lifestyle habits, radical change might be the most effective. Big, drastic changes of circumstance force us to eat differently, move differently, talk differently and think differently. Total immersion experiences such as moving to another country or doing something completely outside our comfort zone may well force us to abandon entrenched circuits and start carving new ones.
This, by the way, is the hidden upside that goes with crisis, chaos and catastrophe. Divorce, trauma and disease cause us to suffer mightily, but the greater the dislocation, the greater the opportunity for new behaviors. We’re in pain, but we also get the chance to construct many of our habits and behaviors from scratch. This will take time, but it may ultimately prove to be a gift.
Of course, most of us would prefer to avoid catastrophe and concentrate instead on making minor adjustments to the way we’re living. After all, most of us aren’t that far off the mark on our lifestyles. We’re eating pretty well, moving our bodies most of the time and living our lives with a fair amount of meaning. We don’t need to completely reinvent the wheel of our lives, just adjust a few spokes here and there.
This is where mindfulness comes in. Here we are, perched on the edge of a neurological slippery slope. Movement or behavior in the familiar direction will simply pull us back into the abyss of habit. It’s just so easy to slide back into the known. If we’re mindless and reactive, hurtling through our lives at breakneck speed, we won’t even notice how close we are to the routine and the familiar. Our mindless momentum will simply carry us forward by the easiest available path, the path to an even deeper habit. But if we can pause, even for the slightest moment, we can observe ourselves on the brink and choose to go one way instead of the other. Meditation can help us do this.
In the process, we will also do well to exercise compassion for ourselves and our efforts. Habit revision is no cakewalk after all. We try, we struggle, we redouble our efforts and stumble once more. We blame ourselves for a lack of character or willpower, but it’s really the nature of nervous systems in general. All plastic nervous systems are vulnerable to back-sliding and relapse; we’re simply following circuits that were laid down and strengthened long ago. This is a universal human challenge.
But when we abuse ourselves for our failures, we simply set ourselves up for more of the same. Self-loathing and self-condemnation create stress, but stress actually increases the probability that we’ll drift back into familiar patterns and ruts. (See The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal) Self-compassion, combined with mindfulness, gives us a practical, beautiful alternative. Love and understanding, not self-abuse, give us the best results.