What’s so amazing about it?
Your brain changes itself from moment to moment to cope with and master the experiences of everyday life. Therapy takes advantage of this amazing ability of the brain—the ability to change itself.
And just like when you start to exercise, you burn more calories even when you are not working out, when therapy is working it is not only working when you are with your therapist. You are literally changing your brain in your everyday life.
How does this happen?
Each neuron in your brain is always receiving information from all the other neurons that connect to it. This information tells it whether or not to fire. The neuron “weighs” the cues to fire and those to not fire, and “decides” whether or not to fire. While this is happening, the neuron is also “learning,” by “noticing” which neurons tend to fire with it most often, and becoming more sensitive to those neurons.
For example, if water is flowing down a hill, at first it seems to flow all over the hill. Gradually the water gathers into larger and larger rivulets and streams. The brain works the same way.
As energy flows through the system (in the form of electricity) those neurons that tend to fire together become even more likely to fire together in the future. A pattern of neurons firing in the brain is self-reinforcing—the more it repeats the more it tends to repeat. And connections that are not used tend to fade away.
Why does this happen?
Whether social ecological, biological or mechanical, all systems follow the same law, called the Constructal Law. This law says that over time, systems tend to organize themselves so that energy can flow more freely. When it comes to human behavior, this means that, over time, behaviors and interactions will tend to become more automatic and to require less forethought—for better or for worse!
So if you want to change the pattern, you have to create new connections–a new channel for the energy to flow. By focusing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in new ways the brain reshapes itself, and relationships reshape themselves.
Can you do this on your own?
Of course, you already do. You make changes in your own life every day. After all you are not the same person you were 10 years ago.
The point is, even serious emotional and behavioral issues are almost never permanent. For example, if you are feeling seriously depressed, part of the problem is that it seems like nothing will ever get better. This is a false, but very powerful perception, and is part of what is called the “disease” of depression.
Likewise, difficult habits and patterns like addictions, family conflict, and out of control behaviors may seem like they require a miracle to change. But the real miracle is within you, and within your relationships themselves.
Families and other social groups act in many ways just like the brain of the individual. Each individual interaction is like the neuron firing, triggering other reactions around it, and recreating a larger pattern. A skillful therapist can help you to discover opportunities — points of ambiguity and openness to change. These are the confluences where a small change can have reverberating effects in many areas of your life.
Perhaps you will discover places where new channels may already be opening, and by redirecting energy they will deepen on their own—no shoveling required! Creating new and positive thought patterns, habits, and interactions can begin to crowd out or take away the power of negativity. Sometimes there is a “dam” that needs to be removed, or redesigned to better manage emotional overflow — we may need to examine our limiting beliefs about ourselves, or shore up our coping skills or social supports.
In short, the brain, like any living system, changes itself from moment to moment. Therapy can help direct and intensify this process to achieve a positive transformation in your life and relationships.