I was driving home across the Bozeman Pass on Interstate 90 last week, and there was a string of construction signs for several miles. Initially, the signs signaled to reduce speed to 55. Next, the right lane would be closed in a half mile; then, another speed reduction. All of the cars in front of me obediently followed the instructions (“FINES DOUBLE IN WORK ZONES,” after all).
As we drove slowly along at 35 in single file for several miles, I realized that there was no construction whatsoever. Perhaps the construction team was setting up for future work or hadn’t yet picked up the markers and signs after finishing that stretch. Nonetheless, it reminded me of how thoroughly conditioned we are to follow instructions and do what others ask of us.
Repeated experiences throughout our lives train us to follow rules, regulations, and instructions, like when we were children and were dismissed for recess or lunch by the school bell ringing. Or like clocking in and out at work, or purchasing the latest gadget that is advertised. However, sometimes we are so carefully following directions from outside of us that we can coast along on automatic.
One of the things that fascinate me about the brain is that it has road maps of neural pathways, much like the highways and byways of our cities and towns. The more we use a pathway, the bigger and stronger it becomes. And just as we need to repair and upgrade our roads and highways, we sometimes need to upgrade the wiring of our brains to increase the quality of our lives.
Our brains have what’s called neural plasticity, meaning that they can—and do—change according to what we put our attention on. Unlike animals, we have the unique ability to choose what we pay attention to. And regularly putting our attention on something specific actually creates new neural pathways or strengthens existing pathways of our brains. This is amazing and an incredible opportunity! We have the power to change the map of our brain.
Why would we want to change the map? Sometimes these pathways can work against us, like the well-trodden one to the pleasure of a latté at Coffee Creek that I am trying to retrain. The more we do something, the more unconscious and automatic it becomes—and the harder the pattern is to change. This is why we often slide back into an old habit after making a promise to ourselves to do something different, like getting more exercise or eating healthier.
One of the things that has helped me change more quickly and easily is to utilize the plasticity of the brain and how it maps. I decide what I want to change and then I pick a symbol to remind me to think or act differently. For instance, I can use the construction signs as a symbolic reminder to be more consciously aware and fully alive, or to slow down and appreciate all the many wonderful people in my life. Each time I see a sign to slow down for construction ahead, instead of grumbling, I can let it remind me to breath deeply.
Summer months always bring road construction. Try it this month: Whenever you find yourself delayed and frustrated in a long line of cars poking along at a snail’s pace, use the time to think of three things you’re grateful for. Instead of complaining about the hassle, let it awaken in you a spark of gratitude. Allow the slow pace to endow you with the impetus to be more conscious. Do it enough and a new pathway of gratitude will begin to become a habit—and a new neural pathway will grow!
As always, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to comment on how you start a new habit or how you discipline yourself to exercise or what you do to live more consciously. And if you try what I’m recommending, let me know how it goes!
For more about brain training, email Heartmanity at email@example.com.