I went for a hike this morning. It was beautiful. The temperature was a pleasant 74 degrees, slightly overcast skies, gentle breeze. The air was crisp and the woods were so calm.
I have been on this trail several times before, but not in recent months. On this day, however, I decided to walk in the opposite direction to what I have always done previously. There is no right or wrong way, but this way was different for me.
Immediately, my brain started trying to make sense of it, to remember the path in reverse. So I go up this hill instead of down... around this curve to the right instead of left... I wonder when will I pass the creek from this direction. It felt backward. It felt awkward. I have some memories of how this path should go from previous hikes, and today it didn't go that way.
My brain and body had to work differently - maybe even harder - to process the steps in the opposite direction. I'm so proud of my little brain because it had to create new neural pathways in order to do so. Literally, a new way of thinking! Here is a little science lesson. Brain cells are called neurons, and we each have around 100 billion neurons which are constantly sending and receiving information from each other. Neural pathways are the connections between neurons when information is transmitted between them. These pathways light up when a connection is formed, and the more the pathway is utilized, the faster and easier the information is transmitted down the path.
For example, toddlers must work really hard at learning to walk because they don't have the neural connection to do so at birth. Once they manage and master the multi-faceted skill of putting one foot in front of the other and maintaining the balance to do, it eventually becomes a dominant neural pathway and no longer requires as much brain effort. Neural pathways are why I always pick up my toothbrush with a certain hand and apply my toothpaste in a particular way. Have you ever started the steps of a task (such as putting toothpaste on your toothbrush) and thought, this feels weird. Then you restart from the beginning and do it "the right way" so your brain says, ahh that's better. Anyone? Or just me? It even explains why we often sit in the same seats in class or at church. We often accurately use the term "creatures of habit." Our brains will take the path of least resistance unless forced to work harder.
Neural pathways are hugely beneficial in so many ways. They allow us to learn information and skills, to ride a bike, to make chocolate chip cookies without a recipe, to solve a Rubik's cube, to understand the letters and words on a page. You can even make falling asleep easier by developing a routine that creates a strong neural pathway leading there. Same with getting ready for school or work. Neural pathways are also tied to our senses, our emotions and our behaviors. They explain why someone may feel relaxed when petting a puppy or when smelling their grandmother's perfume.
Creating new neural pathways is good for neurological health. When neurons have to create new connections, a new pathway is formed. Brain cells literally grow new ways of processing information, such as when I try to learn a new language. It is also good for physical health. Muscles learn to respond to neurons, move differently, get stronger in new ways. Walking on the trail differently forces the muscles in my feet to adjust to various terrain. It is good for mental and emotional health. This is a huge component of managing anxiety and fear, overcoming challenges, becoming the person you didn't think possible, or standing up to the label you have worn your entire life. And yet, these neural pathways can also keep us from growing at times. Like a tire in a rutted road, we can become stuck in thinking, feeling, doing, and reacting the same ol' way.
I was not very far into my hike when I passed this tree.
It was very unidirectional in its appearance. Interestingly, I came upon it from the path it was pointing toward, and it seemed to say, You are supposed to be going THAT way. I paused. It certainly would be a little easier to turn back and go in the same ol' same ol' way. But I continued forward. It proved to be a bit challenging to hike the path in a new direction. It required more attention to the trail markings. I kept my head up but also watched my footwork more closely, lifting my feet over the roots and rocks. I looked around more. I saw things I had not noticed before. Was this bench here last time? I wonder when that tree fell? I persevered in a new task and created new pathways in my brain. I grew some confidence muscles because I kept going forward when I wanted to go backward. I met a fellow hiker with short legs and spotted a Dr Suess-looking tree. I also developed a blister because I wore the wrong socks. Oh well... always learning.
Creating new neural pathways is often awkward and challenging, but also very good for us! It is how our brains grow. It is how we overcome. It is how we become the very best version of ourselves.
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be
transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2
This summer, I listened to a series of short videos posted by a counselor whose work I really appreciate. The videos teach this concept of neural pathways, explain why they are so difficult to change, and describe a step-by-step process to creating new ones. I definitely recommend working through this video series by Dr. Tammy Smith, called Shift by Summer, starting at Episode 1.