Neuroplasticity and habits

Friday night, I heard Dr. Daniel Finley—an addiction specialist who currently works with soldiers—speak about habits.

He told us about the neural structure that supports habits and what happens in the brain to keep the cycles going. He also covered why willpower breaks down when it comes to destructive patterns like alcoholism, drug-use, sex addiction and even things that seem more innocuous like sugar and food addictions.

I was interested by the explanation of the roles of the different parts of the brain. The prefontal cortex which holds your moral code, what you want and your sense of self generally serves as your internal governor while the midbrain which holds your sense of survival acts as an emotional ( and potentially temper tantrum throwing) inner child.  He explained that typically willpower (the role of the prefrontal cortex) works fine until we are bored, lonely, angry, stressed, or tired—in which case the midbrain starts sending out alarm signals for someone to do something to start taking care of it. That alarm signal is typically a powerful cocktail of chemicals that starts a process that usually winds up in the action of the habit that you want to break in the first place.

The key to breaking the cycle is taking care of that midbrain so that it doesn't have to throw a chemical tantrum to get noticed.

And the best way to do that is maintaining focus on the things that connect you to life—which may be different for each person, but generally include relationships, connection to nature, connection to pets, an art form, doing acts of kindness, hugs, group activities, working out, etc.  By developing your own personal list of things that make you feel connected, you can find better ways to satisfy the midbrain when its alarm bells start going off.  Then it is a matter of identifying your triggers that begin the cycle. The triggers may also be a person, advertising, a time of day, etc. When a trigger happens, you immediately do something from your connected list to make your midbrain stop feeling that its survival is threatened.

He spoke about bad habits thriving in darkness and that they often cut people off from the very things that could heal them and how important honesty (shedding light) on them was in the healing process.

I'm interested in hearing more from Dr. Finley--his approach was very practical and he mentioned doing a series at the yoga studio where I attend.

I'm also endlessly fascinated by the power of our brain and learning more about our power to build the neural infrastructure that we want it to have.

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© Random Cathy
Maira Gall