Have you ever walked through a field or in the woods and followed a path that already existed? This would be normal behavior by anyone’s standards. The brain does the same thing by creating neural pathways connecting various regions of the brain.
In a previous house where I lived there was a small wooded section between my backyard and an open field that led to a pond. The first few times I made my way through the thick brush I had to fight my way through carefully avoiding the thorn bushes and weeds full of burs. Gradually I cut through the thicket and through the years a clear path developed. Each time the path was used it served to mat down the grass and weeds creating well-worn trail and easy access to my destination. Once this path was established there was no sense in taking any other way since it required great effort to navigate through the brush. This example is a perfect analogy for what happens in our brain. We create neural pathways linking various portions of the brain.
Throughout our entire life we are beating down pathways in the brain. Following the same routines, thinking in the same ways and engaging in the same habits and behaviors we create neural pathways making it easier for the brains connection from one place to another. Admittedly these pathways may no longer be the best routes to use, but they are beaten down and well-worn and so without conscious effort we will habitually follow the same neural pathways.
Neural Pathway Examples
Some neural pathways get well established in childhood and remain with us for the rest of our lives. For instance if we were criticized for our thoughts or ideas at a young age, we may stop sharing our thoughts with others. This becomes the easiest path with the least amount of thorns and criticism. We may have been disciplined a great deal at a young age so following a path of conformity makes life easier. Maybe growing up with three or more siblings taught us that lying or denying culpability was the easiest path. Since no one could prove your guilt it became easier to lie than admit to something and suffer the consequences. Once we learned to ride a bike the neural pathways ensured we no longer had to concentrate or think about how to keep our balance.
There are benefits and disadvantages to neural pathways.
These paths become our habits, routines and behaviors, they become so beaten down we don’t even think of doing things another way. We predictably respond in certain ways becoming “creatures” of habit. This can be advantageous when it comes to driving a car, navigating our way around town or even tying our shoes. Once a neural pathway is well established we no longer need to consciously think about it. This is how the brain frees up resources to concentrate on other task. However, there are also habits that form out of weakness which do not serve our best interest over the long term. These neural pathways may be worn down as a path to escape dealing with something. Perhaps a couple of drinks after work was the easiest way to relax and forget about the day. Not sharing our feelings may have been the easiest way to prevent conflict. Plopping ourselves on the couch after work and watching TV while eating some fast food was far easier than going to the gym or fixing our own meal. There are plenty of other examples that may have been the easiest path at the moment but over the long term, they do not serve our best interest.
We lose a certain sense of consciousness by the establishment of neural pathways.
Using our mind and exercising our free will is one of the only things that separates us from animals. Animals follow the same paths day in and day out unless they are forced through fear to make a new path. Think of these paths as the route you take to your work, school, etc.. after awhile we stop noticing the scenery; it becomes very common or boring. We start to operate on autopilot not taking notice of everything around us. This is why vacations are so exhilarating. There are no neural pathways established and therefore everything is fresh and new to the senses. We are more alive on a vacation to somewhere new than at most times in our life. Our senses and awareness are hyper vigilant as we are bombarded with new sights, smells, sounds and sensory experiences. There is also a sense of adventure and risk not knowing exactly what to expect around each corner or from minute to minute. There is a level of excitement travelling on a new path that is absent in all our old established pathways.
Our lives become so entrenched in habits and behaviors that these beaten down paths we walk never allow us to explore other paths leading to other experiences. Beliefs are also like this. When we strongly believe in something we will never understand what paths or experiences lies beyond that belief. Ask yourself whether the neural pathways you have established provide fruitful experience, growth or nourishment for your soul. What most people find in walking the same paths is a sense of comfort and safety at the expense of adventure, risk and growth. Personally, I believe any path that results in becoming more loving, compassionate, grateful and peaceful is a path worth following over and over.
Taking a different path…
The only way we are able to change these neural pathways is by exercising our free will choice of doing something different. Depending on how well these paths are worn, they can become our entire life experience. Try doing something different for a day, week or a month and take your brain on a vacation of sorts. If we think about how long we have been trampling the same neural pathways, we begin to understand how challenging it can be to start a new routine or break a new trail. It took many repetitions to establish our current habits and it can take many repetitions to break them. Life is about growth, adventure and experience. All growth eventually leads to becoming more loving, compassionate, grateful and peaceful, otherwise we regress to our animal traits of following the same beaten down paths.
Applying the idea:
- Try to become more conscious of your habits, behaviors and routines.
- Ask yourself whether these established pathways lead to growth or stagnation.
- Have you become such a creature of habit that you refuse to ever try anything different?
- Notice the heightened sense of awareness when you start doing things differently.
- Try to gain an awareness of how you have become a “creature” of habit.
- Start asking yourself how your life could be different if you started beating down new pathways in the brain.
Please share if you found this post to be meaningful and I would love to hear your comments, questions or thoughts… Thank you for reading : )