Neuroscientists continue to explore the plasticity of the human brain, and they are increasingly finding that the brain physically changes in response to mental experience. This explains why habits are so hard to break. The more that a person turns to food, alcohol, social isolation and self-critical thinking in response to life stressors, the more they will naturally be drawn to these thoughts and behaviours in the future. This is because the choices that we make on a daily basis are wiring our brains, setting us up to want to make the same choices again and again. Once the brain has become wired from years of experience, habits become automatic and it can feel like there is no choice or free will when it comes to changing them. This is true of behavioural habits such as drinking, eating, and procrastinating, and it’s equally true of mental habits such as having a negative outlook. For example, when anxiety leads individuals to consistently fixate on avoiding potential adverse outcomes, the brain may become wired to focus – almost exclusively – on avoiding threats, and in so doing, lose sight of what is positive.
The most important – and encouraging – implication to be learned from the emerging research is that with new experience comes new opportunity to either reinforce or re-wire neural pathways. The plasticity of the human brain suggests that even though it may feel like your brain is “hardwired” to be a certain way, your fate is not sealed. The brain can always be re-wired when new habits are instilled.
Recent research has suggested that psychotherapy, a process of intentionally exploring – and transforming – one’s habitual ways of being and coping, has the potential to change brain structure and function. Therapy is an effective way to achieve insight so that you can take steps forward to begin living the life you want to live, rather than the life you’ve been wired for so far.
How does psychotherapy rewire the brain? In collaboration with a therapist, you have the opportunity to identify the change that you want to make, and commit to a step-by-step plan to begin living – and thinking – more like the person you want to become. Every time you consciously make a different choice, your brain has the chance to build new pathways, making it easier and easier to make the same choice the next time around. In this sense, recent insights about the plasticity of the human brain mean that, to a certain extent, you will always have the power to shape and change your mind, and therefore your life.
Shona Tritt is a Registered Clinical Psychologist and Faculty Lecturer at the University of Toronto Scarborough who has worked at The Clinic on Dupont since 2016