Imagine that you are in a forest with thick trees surrounding you. In every direction there are trees and sticks blocking your way. And then you see it: a clear and well-worn path free of obstacles. You walk down that path and everything feels very familiar- you realise that you have walked down this path before. That’s a neural or thought pathway- a well-worn thought pattern in your brain.
We form neural pathways over the course of our lives based on the thoughts that we habitually think. We have many thought pathways in our brain, but not many of us are aware of them and the way that they affect our lives. On the whole, they are a good thing because they allow us to speak our native language, to remember the way home, and to form ongoing relationships with others.
But they can become destructive and toxic when they keep us what I call ‘comfortably numb,’ and create habits that do not serve us, like staying on the couch and eating chocolate every night instead of exercising. Or they may keep us locked in our comfort zone, where we stop learning new skills or visiting new places, because we are only accustomed to our fixed neural pathways. Our neural pathways extend to our relationships as well: the familiar places we go, the fights we have, the people we see etc.
The Power of Neural Pathways
My coaching work is about using conscious awareness to develop new thought pathways with my clients. I like to think of what I do as thought sculpting or moulding. All of us have pathways in our brain that we have developed since we were born. Some pathways are so engrained that they are cemented in and become like slippery slides once we are on them. For example, we might have a default thought pathway whenever we feel anxious that leads us to withdraw and avoid eye contact. Once we have this feeling, we then seek out alcohol to calm us down. That thought pathway was perhaps created as a child or teenager whenever we were anxious or uncomfortable, and continued into adulthood. That doesn’t sound overly destructive, but the thought pathway may be blocking us from opportunities in adult life that involve a bit of healthy nerves, like public speaking and socialising at work events.
Another example is where someone has always used food as a comfort when they feel vulnerable, they need to create new neural pathways to stop that association with food. Or if someone has a neural pathway of I am unlovable, or I lack confidence, or I can’t be happy, we need to adjust those pathways. We all need to realise that we are in charge of how we program our brains- not our parents, not our primary school teachers, not our partners or friends or bosses.
Some Tips for Creating New Neural Pathways
1. Vision boards- shock our brains because they are the start of a new pathway- they are the vision of where we would like to end up. I recommend www.pinterest.com for creating online vision boards.
2. Handwriting/journalling: being reflective about where we are as opposed to where we want to be is important because it brings awareness to where we need to change.
3. Daily meditation: teaches us to be mindful and stay in the present moment, rather than falling victim to our old pathways.
4. This is the big one: keeping up with the new mental habits. Each day do one thing that keeps you on the new track.
5. Choose new thoughts: If our thought pathways are working against us, it’s possible to develop new pathways that will lead us to who we want to be. We do not have to identify with any painful parts of ourselves- that is not who we are, it’s simply an idea we have developed about who we are. We can stop choosing the anxious thoughts right now. We can choose to feel light and happy and grateful. Yes, this is a choice. It might initially feel uncomfortable or counter-intuitive, just like any new habit. Always choose the thought that feels better.
If we are committed to a conscious life, it’s important to make sure that our thought pathways are working for us, and supporting the best self that we are trying to become.