Have you ever wondered why two people can share the exact same situation, yet experience it differently?
Neural pathways are often described as a type of super-highway of nerve cells, the function of which is to transmit messages. Much like a walking track in the bush, the more you walk over it, the more trodden and clear it becomes. The same thing happens when we engage in behaviors such as thinking certain thoughts with a high degree of regularity.
You see the brain consumes between 20-30% of the caloric burn in our body at rest. It uses so much energy because it’s so complex and so it has needed to evolve and adapt in order to automate various processes as a way of conserving energy. This is why and how regular behaviors become habits (or things we seemingly do without a great deal of conscious thought).
Think about something simple like brushing your teeth. You can brush them just fine, no problem but what if I asked you to use your non-dominant hand to do that instead? You’d suddenly have to think about the action of your arm and the motion of your wrist or hand. It would be hard at first because it’s unfamiliar, but if you persevered with it, over time, it would become easier as the task became more familiar. This is an example of neuroplasticity and can be thought of as “re-wiring your brain.”
So now you know in general terms how neural pathways work and their function, we can proceed to look at beliefs. Perhaps you are familiar with the famous metaphor of the iceberg where the tip represents conscious thought and everything below the water line represents subconscious thought. The subconscious mind holds our beliefs, many of which we acquired as we were growing up. The function of a belief is in part to help us make sense of the world around us. It creates a filter for our brain to receive, store, interpret and recall information picked up from the world around us by our senses and it automates the way our brain processes information.
In order for a thought (which occurs in the conscious mind) to become a belief, it must be repeated. It’s this repetition that allows a neural pathway to be created. Here’s an example. Let’s imagine that growing up, you heard your parents say things like “you have to work hard to get ahead.” You heard it a lot. Now imagine that you too now hold the belief (without realizing it) that you have to work hard in order to make money. So you work long hours nearly every day. It affects your marriage, you stop seeing your friends due to your work commitments, and you stop going to the gym. You don’t sleep well at night and you are often irritable or grumpy because you feel pressured to make the money.
If you hold a belief that “you have to work hard to make money”, then that is what will show up in your reality. Your mind will filter out all of the information that it thinks is unimportant and will only bring you the information you’ve told it is important with your belief. So that’s all you see when, in fact, the reality might be very different.
Sometimes beliefs are healthy and other times, they work against us. The good news is that there is a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System or the RAS and part of its role is to actively seek out the information that you tell it to. So, if you want to change a belief the RAS can be your greatest asset! The RAS transmits information between the conscious and subconscious minds and the other beautiful thing about it is that it doesn’t question you at all. Whatever you tell it, it will believe because it does not distinguish between fact and fiction. It simply obeys commands from your conscious mind.
But changing a belief takes time and consistent practice. There are many ways to help your subconscious mind adopt new thinking styles though and these include things like visualization, using your imagination, meditating, acting as-if, using journal prompts to uncover beliefs and develop healthier alternatives, using affirmations (they work on repetition and hence create new neural pathways) and through the use of story.
Hypnosis is another effective way of speeding up the process of changing beliefs because it goes almost directly to the subconscious. It can be more efficient than some other approaches but as with all interventions, is not without its limitations so won’t work for everyone.
One very effective tool that you can use to change a belief is listening to audio narrative such a meditation recording or an affirmation recording. This works best in the last five minutes before you go to sleep and in the first five minutes upon waking because that is when the subconscious mind is most receptive to information. You can prime your brain to develop the neural pathways that you prefer to have by doing things like listening to audio at these times.
When you change your beliefs by redirecting your conscious thought, you can change your belief (filter) and when you change your filter, you change your experience of the world around you, otherwise referred to as your reality. If you are consistent with your practice, you will be begin to see things differently in no time.
How would you prefer to feel today?
Goldstein, E. (2011). Cognitive Psychology (Third ed., pp. 24-76). N.p.: Linda Schreiber-Ganster.
Liou, S. (2010, June 26). Neuroplasticity. In web.stanford.edu. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from http://web.stanford.edu/group/hopes/cgi-bin/hopes_test/neuroplasticity/
Martindale, C. (1991). Cognitive psychology: A neural-network approach. Belmont, CA, US: Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
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Walker, A. (2014, July 1). How Your Thought Pathways Affect Your Life. In http://www.drwalker.com. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from http://www.drawalker.com/blog/how-your-thought-pathways-create-your-life