Any person could, if they were so inclined, be the sculptor of their own brain
– Santiago Ramón y Cajal
The short answer is yes, people really can change. Being a therapist, I have the privilege and honour to witness this in real time. With the desire to change and ability to learn along with putting in the hard-work, people are capable of changing structures in their brain that influence thoughts, feelings and actions.
Human beings are incredibly adaptable. Our brains, to a certain degree, are malleable. This flexibility is called neuroplasticity.
Contrary to the popular belief that 'people can’t change', we have the amazing ability to change quite literally, in terms of neural structures.
The Ski Metaphor
Let’s understand this better through creative visualisation. I encourage you to tap into your imagination and paint a picture in your mind as you read along.
Imagine yourself in a striking snowy landscape high up in the Himalayas. You're the only one here. The winter sun is warm and strong. It’s making the snow glisten like glitter. You are standing on a mountain slope wearing a cute ski outfit. You have all the ski gear you need, and you’re ready to zip through the slopes leaving a trail in the snow behind you.
You think about which route to take. There’s one particular route you usually choose and find easy to follow as you've had practice here. It has a pretty defined path now due to the deep marks left in the snow after repeated use. However, this path is not helping you to grow as a skier anymore. You feel stuck.
You ponder about a new, off-beat route. Initially, it will be harder to find your way around here. You don’t know where it leads, however you’ve heard the views are breathtaking. You are at a choice point.
Whatever route you choose, it leaves behind lines in the snow. Consequently, that route becomes easier and easier to ski over due to the path that eventually forms with practise.
Which path do you choose? Remember, you’re the one doing the skiing.
Perhaps, you choose the new off-beat route, and with repeated attempts to navigate it, over the course of time - you create a new, much deeper familiar path. You find yourself smiling - the view is even more gorgeous than you’d imagined.
Now, think of your brain as a beautiful snow covered mountain slope.
Think of your thoughts and actions as lines made in the snow by skiing. These lines are neural structures.
The more you ski down the same route, the deeper the lines get, eventually making the path easier and easier to follow. So the more you repeat certain thoughts or actions, the more ‘naturally’ they come to you. This is because neural connections strengthen with repetition.
On the other hand, if you don’t ski down a particular route for a long time, fresh snow will eventually erase the path you created. You either use it, or lose it.
For example, if you’re used to beating yourself up mentally over small mistakes, being mean to yourself comes easily to you. The more you do it, the stronger that pattern gets. The stronger those neural connections become, the more ‘naturally’ you gravitate to those thoughts.
You may learn along the way that compassion serves you better. You start talking to yourself with some empathy, and it feels strange at first. With awareness and repetition, you begin to create new neural connections. With the passage of time and practise, being kind to yourself now feels as natural as being mean once did.
Ta-da! You’re actively rewiring your brain. You’re literally changing.
The Science Behind It
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change and adapt due to experience or learning. It is an umbrella term referring to the brain's ability to change, re-organise, or grow neural networks.
A mental activity (thought, feeling, action) leads to the creation of new neural connections. Repetition of the mental activity strengthens these neural connections.
Simply put, repetition of helpful thoughts, feelings and actions increases their likelihood of occurring and sticking. It’s easier and easier to think certain thoughts if we use them often. (i.e. think it often and neuroplasticity will step in and make it even easier to think about it more often.)
You start to believe the patterns you feed.
While learning that trauma changes the brain can feel discouraging, remember that healing changes the brain, too.
While trauma leaves lines in the snow, so does healing.
And that’s the beauty of neuroplasticity.
Therapy can be a place to explore such new ski trails with some support and guidance. After all, having a ski partner doesn't hurt.