“Our brains renew themselves throughout life to an extent previously not thought possible.”
The first civilization to make New Year’s resolutions were the ancient Babylonians, around 4000 years ago. The Babylonians celebrated in mid-March. Later, the Romans were the first to celebrate making New Year’s resolutions on January 1st, according to the calendar established by Julius Caesar.
January is named for Janus, the two-faced god who looked backward into the previous year and forward into the future. The Romans offered sacrifices to the gods, promising them good conduct in the coming year.
During the time of these two civilizations, people didn’t know how to change their behavior through making a resolution to do it – but, we do now: it’s through neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to change in response to our thoughts, lifestyle, and environment.
If you’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution and have kept it, you used your brain’s neuroplasticity to rewire the old brain pathway that fed the negative habit or thinking pattern to a new route that led to the change you wanted to make.
You’ve been using your brain’s neuroplasticity on an unconscious level since the moment you were born. Neuroplasticity is how you learned to distinguish the face of your mother from other faces, how you learned to walk, talk, use the “potty”, and master the skills you used in school. It’s also how you learned to live within the structure of your family’s social, economic and cultural structure.
If you struggle this year to keep your resolution – Keep trying! Your rewiring can still change. The route you’re trying to change is a little more deeply embedded and requires more effort to change permanently.
How does the neuroplasticity of your brain work?
None of us are born with an innate ability to instantly rewire new pathways to change how we think, feel, and act. We have to learn how to make this change. While books, self-help courses, podcasts, and YouTube videos are full of “quick fixes” for every facet of our lives that we may want to change, shortcuts don’t work.
To change any behavior related to, for example, your health or a relationship with a spouse, coworker, or family member, you have to be intentional in your efforts. Most of our behavior and decisions in daily life are controlled by unconscious brain function.
Take a moment and think about a route you drive regularly. You can navigate the way “on autopilot” and without conscious thought because of its familiarity and how comfortable you feel driving it. It’s predictable. But if you deviate from that regularly driven route, you’ll be altering connections in your brain as you experience different sights and traffic patterns. At first, those changes happen on a chemical level through neurotransmitters – the same mechanism that controls your automatic responses to daily interactions. But, making those new connections in your brain is like building an overpass that connects the “old route” to a completely different route. And, if you continued to take the new route, you’d weaken the old route connections, and the new route would begin to be the one that you travel on autopilot.
To make changes to your brains neuroplasticity, do these four things:
1. Assess the behavior you’d like to change.
Whether it’s dieting, exercising, procrastinating about a project you want to begin, a language you want to learn, or a course you want to take, what needs to change to accomplish your goal? For example, if it’s getting along better with your spouse or partner, it’s deciding to wait and listen to what they say before formulating your response 3 seconds into the conversation. You’d be amazed at what you learn and how that one simple thing can change the dynamics of your relationship.
2. Make a conscious choice.
You have to make a conscious choice to reinforce the new behavior more than the old behavior. Think about it like you’re choosing to take a new route rather than being on autopilot.
3. Consider what the change will affect.
Consider how the change will affect you and those around you. But remember, building and reinforcing those new pathways requires a lot of hard work. Since your brain works like a movie, you are the only one who knows the script, hears the soundtrack, and what behaviors should go along with the words that are said and the emotions that are the outcome of the scene. Keep in mind that you are the only one seeing it.
Change takes time, so keep checking your expectations for how soon you expect someone to notice your effort. If you feel comfortable with it, share how the movie in your mind has set up the scene when the change is recognized – it will go a long way to moving you closer to the change you envision.
Good luck! I’ll be rooting for you!