What We Can Learn, We Can Unlearn

Neuroplasticity and Addiction Recovery
Peter Soderman, SMART Recovery® Facilitator, Mexico

Our brains have the ability to rewire themselves, changing structurally and functionally, in response to changes in our environment and our experiences. For most of the twentieth century, the consensus among neuroscientists was that the brain was relatively fixed and immutable after a certain critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by new findings and evidence, especially detailed brain imaging that has conclusively proven that our brains retain plasticity (a significant ability to change) into adulthood, and even old age.

This characteristic of the brain, called neuroplasticity, is responsible not only for our ability to learn and unlearn, but also for the ability of some people to recover from serious injuries, strokes, and diseases that disable or disrupt some of their brain functions.

Our brain is totally fluid, what we can learn we can unlearn just as quickly. Our neural circuits are pruned to the tune of 20 billion synapses a day, or so, during adolescence, and this practice continues, although at a slower rate, for our entire lives. Pathways we don’t use simply shrivel-up and die. We forget people, places, and things; we lose skills, some acquired with a great deal of effort; we change habits, likes, dislikes, political parties; we adapt new ways of doing things, discarding the old; in other words, if we are the sum of our experiences, we become different people over time, and this is all a result of neuroplasticity.

Baseball players have batting practice every day; actors rehearse again, and again, and again; in fact, every learned skill must be practiced to maintain the neural circuits we have created, or we lose it, over time. Jascha Heifetz, the renowned violinist is rumored to have said: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”

Neglect and atrophy are not the only ways our circuits can change. When we change our minds about something, we really change our minds. When we receive new information that changes how we think or feel about someone or something, we literally alter synaptic connections all over our brains. Neurons that used to be connected to one place are now connected somewhere else, firing with different neural circuits. We don’t have to worry about the mechanics of it, we just make a decision and it’s done for us through the process of neuroplasticity.

Of course, we all know we have a built-in “forgetter,” and we see evidence of it every day, but is neglect and inattention the only way our neural circuits can change? Fortunately for us, the answer to that is no. Just as new information that we deem important can change our thinking and our beliefs, we can also change habit or working memory using the same tools.

Let’s say we have always done something a certain way, perhaps because a parent or teacher showed us early in life, and years later we find a new way to do the same thing that’s much more efficient, and produces a better result. It might be a woodworking technique, a golf swing, or a sewing method, what it is doesn’t matter.

The fact is, we can change habitual behavior as easily as we can change our minds. All it requires is that we pay attention, and practice the new method or technique until it becomes our new habit. Connections in the brain that used to exist will disappear, replaced by the new connections we create simply by changing the way we think, and subsequently, our actions.

Oftentimes, change isn’t easy, and I don’t mean to imply that it is. If it was, there would be far fewer people struggling with addiction, and SMART Recovery could be a one-point program.

Your brain is constantly changing, and you have ultimate control over it – for good or ill. Realize that just because your brain has formed certain connections, and you have learned to respond to certain cues and triggers, doesn’t mean you can’t go back, make new connections, and form new habits that countermand and supersede the old.

“The forgoing is an excerpt from the book “Powerless No Longer” by Pete Soderman, and is the property of the author.”

About The Author: Pete Soderman is a SMART Facilitator who co-founded the SMART meeting in Wilmington, NC with Mike Werner, and is currently facilitating a SMART meeting in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico. He is the author of “Powerless No Longer,” and has been involved in the addiction and treatment field for many years. He is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled: “Recovering in Chaos,” to be released later this year.

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