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What fires together, gets wired together.
What fires together, gets wired together.

What fires together, gets wired together. Most of us have heard this phrase and know what it implies. We know that if we commit to good practices and do them consistently, then we build new habits that stick in our brain wiring so they become automatic. The hard part is doing something regularly enough that the new wiring continues permanently for a lifestyle change. 

Take, for example, the goal of being physically healthy. We say we want to maintain a healthy weight and know in our conscious minds that eating balanced nutritious meals, drinking sufficient water, sleeping well and exercising every day are the behavior patterns that have to “fire together” regularly enough to get this complex set of variables “wired up” to become automatic. But then life happens. We are blasted with huge numbers of advertising messages that tempt the pleasure-seeking Reward Network systems in our brain and before we know it, that part has hijacked our Control Network. The trouble is that both parts of the brain can’t be lit up at the same time very efficiently. The reward seeking part is more connected to our emotional centers and our emotions may tend to take over our good rational intentions. 

What to do? It’s not an easy challenge to rewire a reward network to submit to a control network. What has to happen? Self-regulation happens in small actions. One day at a time. And some of us are better at it than others. 

Without some level of control, there is no discipline possible. The very definition of discipline is “showing a controlled form of behavior or way of working”.  This requires the Control Network in our brain to select and focus on something, act upon it and do so enough times that it becomes wired into a habitual lifestyle. Not so easy to change, since most of these brain superhighways were established in our first couple of decades. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking the answer lies in a phrase called “delayed gratification”.  A reward that is longer term than the immediate moment has to rise in importance over the short term reward of a lot of tempting immediate moments. Like, learning that our lifestyle has caused us to get a poor health report and diagnosis that can result in death if we don’t address it. The more important, longer-term reward is important enough that it can motivate a lifestyle change. 

So, what’s the big, longer-term goal that can get us there? It has to be visual and appeal to our emotions. It has to be MORE important than what we want in the moment. And we have to understand how our brains work. 

The first week is easy. The hard part comes when the actual brain rewiring begins. The old wiring doesn’t let go as easily as we’d hoped. Precisely when the rewiring begins to take place, the old wiring rebels and wants to keep us safely where we have always been. There are subtle emotions connected with (wired together) what worked a long time ago. The key is to power through the few weeks of rebellion until the new wiring begins to stabilize. One it does, the new habits become the new power network and hopefully, it produces the results we want. 

In the meantime, we have to stick it out and do our very best to block out all of the incoming stimuli that tempt us to go back to our old ways. Having a spotter that can help us when we falter can really help. It’s actually why most of the 12 step programs designed to help with addiction work too. By connecting with others during the tempting periods, we are wiring some good emotions into the process along the way. Humans are social beings and anything we can do to replace artificial rewards with relationship rewards can help us with long-term success. 

Studying how the brain works helps a lot. I’m going to make a few lifestyle changes this spring and will let you know how it turns out. If you want to join me, then you will actually be helping us both to succeed!