Understand brain maps and you can learn how to change a habit, change your life. Now that’s a bold, somewhat bizarre statement. Nonetheless, it holds the key to the power each of us can wield over the health of our brain and therefore the quality of our life. Here is a very basic explanation.
How Brain Maps Are Formed
1. The brain controls everything we think, feel, say and do. It does this through neural networks – basically, neurons (cells) talking to one another in the brain and to and from other neurons throughout the body through the central nervous system. Neurons in the brain are also called brain cells.
2. The way our brain cells connect to one another (in other words, form neural networks) is what determines what we think, feel, say and do. By the same token, the thoughts, behaviors we’ve adopted, our environment, genetics, outside influences and the like all influence this pattern of connection. In other words, it influences which neurons are firing; which neurons are receiving and which networks are being formed. If you’re not familiar with neural networks, this post gives you the overview, Here’s To Neural Networks! . As you’ll read in that article, neurotransmitters, neurons, receptors and synapses are keys to the brain’s communication system – its neural networks.
3. To help the brain be more efficient, the neural networks that are being repeatedly activated (meaning used at the same time, such as those used for driving a car or typing on a computer or texting on a cell phone) or those we instinctually use (such as those used for breathing or heartbeat) become those that are strengthened (wrapped in a myelin sheath is the term) to form a brain map for an activity. In his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge describes this concept by quoting an expression, “Neurons that fire together wire together” to form embedded brain maps for that which we think, feel, say and do.
Why Brain Maps Are So Important
The images below are of the left and right side of the brain, copied from HiddenTalents.org, ©2001 Stephen Holland. They shows the activities in various parts of the brain that are controlled by the neural networks in those parts of the brain.
These maps are triggered by cues — sound, sight, touch, smell, emotions, and they can take hold (activate) within milliseconds. One analogy I use is the light switch. When the switch is off, the lamp is off; there is not light. But when the switch is flipped, before a person can blink their eyes, the electricity has reached the lamp, and it lights. Brain maps can activate that fast!
If a person’s brain is injured – by a traumatic brain injury or PTSD or substance abuse or addiction or chronic exposure to secondhand drinking, as examples – wherever the injury or change occurs will be the neural networks impacted. Meaning – a person’s behaviors governed by brain maps in that area of the brain will change.
How to Change a Brain Map
It is not easy to be sure. It will depend on how long the map has been in use, how many other maps it connects with, your conscious awareness of the map(s) and your untiring dedication to doing whatever it will take to change the map(s).
1. Understand how your brain map went together. Check out the PDF Chapter 4 excerpt, “Basic Brain Facts,” from my latest book, 10th Anniversary Edition If You Loved Me, You’d Stop! (2019).
2. Appreciate the importance of cues and learn new skills to cope or ignore the old cues. As I mentioned above, cues are a sound, sight, touch, smell, emotions – the “something” that triggers the start of the map in the very first place. It could be the time of day, a person, a place, a song, stress…. This post shares the process for changing automatic reactions to conflict.
3. Do the key things you can do immediately to restore or bolster brain health – yes – the things I cite next are now scientifically understood to change the “infrastructure” of the brain. Neurotransmitters, for example, are made of amino acids, vitamins and minerals – thus eating a nutritiously healthy diet improves the health of one’s neurotransmitters. These things include: nutrition, aerobic exercise, sleep, and mindfulness. I highly recommend Dr. John J Ratey’s book, SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.
4. If you are dealing with brain changers, such as addiction, secondhand drinking-related toxic stress or mental illness, find help specific to healing the brain of these brain changers. There is a host of information to that effect on this website.
5. Remember you’re changing an embedded brain map – rewiring your brain. This takes unfailing dedication and a commitment to try something else if what you’ve tried did not work. It also takes practicing the new behavior (habit) in order to embed the new brain map. To emphasize the power of this, I want to share the outcomes experienced by one young person I worked with who was born prematurely and suffered a brain bleed and mild cerebral palsy as a result. We worked together and with her teachers and doctors to develop and wire in “work arounds” to train her brain to use other pathways in order to achieve desired outcomes, such as walking heal/toe, staying organized, developing effective study habits. It took a great deal of time (years) and effort, but it worked. Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, “Stroke of Insight” further demonstrates the power of the brain to re-wire, to heal, to change.