In 1949, Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb told the world that, "Neurons that fire together wire together." This newly known fact lead us to a new understanding in habit change.
Science understood that our brain cells communicate through the release of chemical molecules, known as neurotransmitters. These molecules are absorbed by and passed from neuron to neuron and so on down the line, firing up each neuron in turn, until it reaches its intended destination. When we repeat a thought or an action over and over, those brain cells send those neurotransmitters back and forth again and again, and the connection between them strengthens. With enough repetition - enough firing together - brain cells eventually rewire, forming an actual physical connection between them known as a "neural pathway." Neural pathways allow regular thoughts and patterned actions to become automatic. Very handy indeed.
Automatic patterning is what enables you to brush your teeth or tie your shoes without thought. You’ve done it so many times, that the neurons in your brain have created neural pathways around those behaviours. It feels natural to do these things a certain way. To do anything different would take focused thought and would probably feel kind of uncomfortable, like brushing your teeth with the other hand. This is also why when we want to master something, we practice it over and over again. Such as when first learning how to type, hit a golf ball or play piano. In this way, our habitual behaviours have an actual physical existence in the structure of the brain. So, what does all this have to do with our habits around health and eating? A lot, as it turns out. Just like actions that you no longer have to think about to complete successfully, like brushing your teeth and tying your shoes, your brain creates neural pathways around all manner of repeated behaviours:
Eating your favourite chocolate to self sooth when you’re stressed
Always having popcorn at the movies
Finding yourself reaching for a snack when bored
Drinking more when out with friends
Eating a bag of chips on the couch at night
Grabbing a tub of ice cream to make yourself feel better after a long day
These stored automatic behaviours free up our higher thinking brain for other important tasks such as conversation, watching our environment for danger, problem solving etc. Imagine you as a kid, and between you and your school, there lay a huge grassy forest. The first time you walked through that forest, it would be hard. You’d have to do a lot of work, whacking down all that tall grass while you also concentrate and plan how to make your way through this new forest.
However, after doing this day after day for a couple of weeks, the grass along that path would become worn into a track. You wouldn’t have to think about how to get through the forest any more. You could be texting, thinking about homework or your weekend plans, and you’d just automatically follow the path that you’d previously made. If, however, one day you decided that path wasn’t working for you anymore and you wanted to create a new path to school, while it would be difficult and challenging at first - whacking a new path through the long grass - and while you might be tempted to go back to the old, well-worn path that you’d taken so many times, eventually, if you stayed on the new path day after day, the grass there would wear down and the new path would become your automatic default. This is exactly how your brain learns, re-learns and automates your habits around food. Repeat an eating behaviour enough times, and it become automatic.... without you having to think. Autopilot can have you standing in front of your open fridge with leftover lasagne in your hand, wondering how you got there. Or why at 3pm every afternoon you end up in the staff kitchen mooching around for a cookie. This is in actual fact great news for anyone wanting to make a change. If al it takes is practice to change habits, then we can do away with the notion that an unlimited supply of willpower is required to stay on track with new behaviours. What it means is that, given time and practice, you can reprogram for that desirable healthy choices. Eating more vegetables, meal prepping on the weekend, walking off a stressful day, avoiding nighttime snacking etc. Yes, some willpower is required at first in order to spark change. And new behaviours often come with a degree of discomfort. New ways may also feel strange or even forced for a while, but with a little insight, purposeful choices and support, creating new patterns of behaviour and installing new habits is entirely possible!
After starting out in nutrition, I quickly realised that knowledge was not necessarily the main issue with clients. They generally know what to do, but didn't always know how to go about making changes and/or stick to their new choices. This was incredibly frustrating - watching clients start out with glowing enthusiasm, to then fall off the bandwagon once the first sparks of change died out. This lead me to complete a diploma with Integral Coaching Canada. I now combine nutrition, herbalism and coaching to help my clients create better health and habits.
If this is something you could benefit from and if you'd like to work with me, please get in touch.