For years mainstream science believed that brain anatomy was fixed, after childhood the brain only changed as far as declining through age. In addition, if the brain failed to develop properly, or was injured due to disease, illness, or injury the brain cells simply died and could not be replaced. What is so exciting about recent developments in neuroscience is we now know that the brain has plasticity to it, it continues to grow, develop, and change. Amazingly, the brain can also heal itself and create new pathways.
In his book, “The Brain that Changes Itself” Norman Doidge points out beautifully through real life stories the amazing capacity for the brain to not only change, but to heal itself.
He states, “The idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity is, I believe, the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy and the workings of its basic component, the neuron. Like all revolutions, this one will have profound effects.” (The Brain that Changes Itself, p. xx)
Doidge also states, “THE BRAIN CAN CHANGE ITSELF. It is a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age. Arguably the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since scientists first sketched out the brain’s basic anatomy, this revolutionary discovery, called neuroplasticity, promises to overthrow the centuries-old notion that the brain is fixed and unchanging. The brain is not, as was thought, like a machine, or “hardwired” like a computer. Neuroplasticity not only gives hope to those with mental limitations, or what was thought to be incurable brain damage, but expands our understanding of the healthy brain and the resilience of human nature.” (www.normarndoidge.com)
In his book Doidge shares a metaphor used by Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, one of the pioneers in brain research. Pascual-Leone likens the brain to a snowy hillside in winter and all of the aspects of that hill such as the consistency of the snow, the rocks, the slope, etc. are like our genes. These are the parts of our brain that are a given. If we were to sled down the hill we will end up at the bottom of the hill by a certain path that has been navigated by how we navigated but also by those characteristics already on the hill. The second time we sled down the hill it will be likely that we will end up in some way on the path we took the first time. The second trip down the slope is not exactly the same as the first, each time it is a slightly different journey. However, if we spend the entire day sledding down that hillside, at the end of the day there will be certain sled trails that have been very well used and others that have hardly been used. The tracks that are well used are harder to get out of and we will find ourselves travelling those more and more throughout the day. These new tracks are no longer determined by the aspects of the hill that were there to begin with, they have been created by us. (p. 209)
Our brains operate just as this snowy hillside. These “tracks” that get laid down in our brains can lead to habits, good or bad. As the tracks become more engrained, they are not determined by our genetics and they are hard to change. The good news, our brains are changeable.
“Desire initiates the process, but learning sustains it” (Harvard Health Publications, July 2011). The Twelve Principles are designed to take recovery to a higher level of thinking and learning. Working the Twelve Steps can take us to a place of safety, sanity, and serenity. The Steps however are the beginning of the journey, not a destination. The Twelve Principles take us beyond the rules and into a new way of leading our lives. As a result, the principles use more of the bandwidth of our brains and help us to integrate the many different areas of the brain. Full integration requires thousands of hours of focused effort. It is very similar to learning a new language. In his popular book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell (2008) stated that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in your field. Psychologist Anders Ericsson, who was an expert in the development of expertise stated, “Becoming an expert in most fields usually takes about a decade of concentrated effort.”
Daily focus and working the Twelve Principles program allows that concentrated effort, with the goal of becoming experts, in how we live our lives and in a life of recovery beyond the steps. Through time, energy, and focus spent working the Principles program, you will literally be changing your brain and continuing the healing process.
Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist from UCLA. is known for developments in interpersonal neurobiology. He states that, “neurons that fire together wire together. Siegel states, “Therapeutic experiences that move an individual toward well-being promote integration. Deviations from this integrated flow are revealed as rigidity and/or chaos and result in symptomatic conditions that may be experienced as inflexible, maladaptive, incoherent, deflated, and unstable.” These rigid pathways are the trails laid down by addiction, the unhealthy neuropathways we are attempting to change.
The Principles require a higher level of thinking and learning utilizing both reflection and implementation. The Principles help us to integrate the many different areas of the brain. Recovery is similar to learning a new language, at first we focus on the basics: the alphabet, vocabulary, pronunciation, and the placement of nouns and verbs in learning a language correctly. Over time, as we are more fluent in the new language we naturally begin to do the next right thing. Eventually this new language of recovery becomes fully integrated into our neural wiring, changing our brains, and changing our hearts and lives.