A good metaphor for why habits are so hard to change


A good metaphor is gold. Here’s one about how habits are created and why they are so hard to change. It’s from Harvard neurology professor, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, via Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. I love this metaphor. It’s brilliant. And, so winter. So Canadian.

“The plastic brain is like a snowy hill in winter. Aspects of that hill – the slope, the rocks, the consistency o the snow – are, like our genes, a given. when we slide down on a sled, we can steer it and will end up a the bottom fo the hill by following a path determined both by how we steer and the characteristics of the hill. where exactly we will end up is hard to predict because there are many factors in play.””

“But,” Pasucal-leone says, “What will definitely happen the second time you take the slope down is that you will more likely than not find yourself somewhere or another that is related to the path you took the first time. It won’t be exactly that path, but it will be closer to that one than any other. and if you spend your entire afternoon sledding down, walking up, sledding down, at the end you will have some paths that have been used a lot, some that have been used very little… and there will be tracks that you have created, and it is very difficult now to get out of those tracks. and those tracks are not genetically determined anymore.

The mental “tracks” that get laid down can lead to habits, good or bad. If we develop poor posture, it becomes hard to correct. If we develop good habit, they too become solidified. Is it possible, once “tracks” or neural pathways have been laid down, to get out of those paths and onto different ones? Yes, according to Pascual-leone, but it is difficult because, once we have created these tracks, they become “really speedy” and very efficient at guiding the sled down the hill. to take a different path becomes increasingly difficult. A roadblock of some kind is necessary to change direction.”

Yes, “a roadblock of some kind”. A serious constraint, put on the existing habit; one that forces you to take a different direction, and use a different part of your brain (or sledding hill :-)).

Doidge’s book was recommended to me by a friend; a retired geriatric nurse. I found it a delightful and most informative book.

Understanding how the brain works (even a tiny bit) offers some real nuggets, metaphors, that help explain conflict responses, constructive and destructive, and sparks ideas for thinking and doing, different.


photo credit: blmoregon (Flickr)


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