Every experience we’ve had in our lives has taught us something, if we realized it or not. These lessons have literally changed our brains. The things we learn early in life quickly develop into our survival maps. Our survival maps are essentially our brains taking what we learned about how to get our needs met and developing rules we have to live by in order to feel safe. (Dr. E. A. Wilson on Survival Maps). For example; learning at a young age that we should suppress negative emotions if we want to be safe (accepted in our tribe) then becomes a rule we apply to all other areas of our life. This is how we learn to deal with emotions.
Survival maps are powerful and not easy to change. The more we use pathways in our brains (x happens and then we react with y) the stronger that pathway becomes. Our survival maps are such strong pathways that they are neurological highways now; my brain interprets anger and I have a fake smile plastered on my face before even realizing that I was upset.
The good news is that our brains, and hence our survival maps, can be changed. It’s not easy, but it is possible. We can train new pathways to develop. The first step of course is being aware of those pathways; looking at what we learned from our past and the rules we ended up following because of those lessons. Then, if those rules aren’t serving us anymore, we have to make a conscious decision to change our response to those situations/stimuli.
When we are born our brains have the capability of hearing and producing any phoneme from any language; however, after a while of being exposed to the language in our environment we start losing the ability to hear the phonemes that we didn’t experience. This is why adults who learn a new language continue to have an accent- because they don’t have the capability of hearing that phoneme the way it is supposed to be pronounced. From early on our brains follow the “use it or lose it model”, and this continues for our lifetime.
As the brain’s “use it or lose it” method goes – we have to do something differently, over and over again, until the old pathway becomes ingrown and our new pathway becomes the rational path to take. This method of learning by repetition applies to many of our behaviours; learning to play an instrument or remembering our new address, to name a couple. The tricky business with our long-held habits (such as our survival maps) is that they are so ingrained in our brains that we aren’t only forging new paths, we are resisting the default paths we already have in place.
We need to overcome this learned behaviour by sending new signals – we need to retrain our brains. Good thing for us, the old idiom is bullshit, old dogs CAN learn new tricks.
Sounds simple enough; we’ve all heard of Pavlov’s dog. Let’s just go grab ourselves a bell and some food and get on with it. Thing is, when we start going against our survival map, it gets louder. In our survival map’s opinion we are putting ourselves in danger, and it’s not going to sit quietly by while we run the car off the cliff.
I’ve been working hard lately at going off the beaten path and forging new ones. Abandoning the well-maintained freeways of my mind; the multi-laned express neurons with high tolls that lead straight to the dump. I’m sick of the drive, sick of what it costs me, and sick of where I end up because of them. My motivation has me trugding through the woods, but my survival map is a persistent companion. It’s like off roading with the GPS on; the more I veer off the path, the louder the GPS gets…“Make a u-turn….make a U TURN.. MAKE A FUCKING U TURN!!”.
It’s difficult to ignore the persistent pull of that voice, hard not to believe that it knows better. It takes a lot of strength to continue on your new path. I try to remind myself, it’s a process..it’s a process. Sometimes I catch myself taking the GPS directions without realizing until I’m at the dump, sometimes my doubt gets the best of me and I willingly follow it back to the freeway, and sometimes I even have a hard time distinguishing the GPS from my own voice. Despite this, there are times I’m forging my new path with the strength of a lumberjack. Drowning out the GPS by bellowing an off-pitch tune with the kind of confidence that comes from being alone in your car.
My old pathways are still well maintained routes at this time, still the default. It continues to take a lot of effort to change my behaviour, change the signals, and forge new paths. I know it will take a long time before my new path becomes my brain’s go-to; but I like to imagine that even by going off roading once in awhile my freeway will start to deteriorate – and we all know what kind of damage a few potholes can do.