Have you had the experience of patients who can’t seem to stop recycling their negative thoughts, ones who make statements like, “My life is just a series of bad events.” and “I can’t change, I’m just hardwired that way.”? As a clinician, I have often revisited the question of “Can people change?” and if they do, how? This has elicited a long-time personal theory that people maintain an initial “knee-jerk” response when triggered, but with the use of therapeutic tools, life experiences and other methods they can learn to be aware of these “old” responses and consciously, and many times within seconds, move toward a healthier, more positive response.
There is now research in neuroscience confirming long-held theories about the brain and how it functions. Beginning with William James, who coined the term in The Principles of Psychology (1890), neuroscientists have now confirmed that brain tissue is “plastic.” While some areas of the brain seem to be dedicated to specialized functions like speech and movement, other more personality, emotion and directed behavior functions afford significantly more “plasticity.” Neuroscience research has made its greatest contributions to the study of cognitive development by revealing mechanisms and providing a solid answer to the question of “how” people change that underlie behavioral observations made earlier by psychologists.
At the cognitive level, neuroscience addresses the questions of how psychological functions are produced by neural circuitry. With the emergence of new measurement techniques such as MRI, PET and human genetic analysis, to name just a few, neuroscientists and behavioral health clinicians now have a greater ability to address abstract questions such as how human cognition and emotion are mapped to specific neural substrates.
Within the last years of the 20th century and continuing through today, ways are being devised to visualize and know beyond doubt that our every thought, belief, emotion and behavior have locations in the brain. At the cellular level, every moment of our awareness involves tiny signals being repeatedly passed between cells. When you feel good by a positive thought, that feeling has a cellular signature or pathway in your brain and those cells continue to create that feeling every time you have that thought. This same cell sequence occurs when you have a negative thought and the ensuing negative feelings that occur every time you have that thought cause a firing of that cell sequence. It is these “pathways” that we now know are “plastic” and therefore changeable. In essence, we now know we can change these pathways by conscious intention and repetition. With this new understanding of the brains’ plasticity we are able to answer the age-old question “Can people change?”
Yes, they can change if they want to badly enough and are willing to work at it. By repeatedly and purposefully challenging assumptions and redirecting our thoughts to more affirming possibilities we are creating new pathways in our brain that become more readily available to us over time.
One analogy that has been cited often by neuroscientists and psychologists is to consider the brain like a ski slope after a heavy snowfall. As skiers begin to negotiate the slope, “grooves” or pathways begin to form as they track the same groove or path over and over. Eventually, these grooves become so deep and fixed it requires a great deal of effort for a skier to shift from the old path to a new path. However, if the new path is repeatedly followed it can eventually replace the old groove as the preferred choice.
To continue the analogy one step further, one might say that the old groove or path does not necessarily go away and can be followed by a skier if they are not intentional about choosing and using the new path. New paths of thinking, feeling, and behaving can be established with motivation, hope, hard work and diligence. Old habits may remain available but their power can weaken over time with continued practice.
“Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” William James
Laura Copland is the Senior PTSD Treatment Trainer/National CPT Trainer for the Center for Deployment Psychology.
Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2008 April; 17(2): 136–141. Contributions of Neuroscience to Our Understanding of Cognitive Development. Diamond, A.; Amso, D.
The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Doidge, Norman (Aug 7, 2008)