Habits can be helpful and potentially harmful for your brain

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When we perform new tasks, we build our brains. New neural connections and synapses are created within our nervous systems to support us in our new endeavors. This is called neuroplasticity; it is an important component in learning a new skill.

Neuroplasticity can also help us to use our “muscle memory” when we are responding to an emergency situation or when we need to respond to something without thinking. By repeating a task through drills and skill-building exercises, we reinforce these neural networks. If trained properly, skills can be performed without as much thought and attention to every little detail.  This can be helpful to us in many ways.

Soldiers and police learn how to assemble and use their weapons in all sorts of situations; so they can respond appropriately when called to duty. First responders like paramedics, EMTs and firefighters practice their trades all times of the day and in different conditions for the same reason. The more we perform a task, the more deeply it can become embedded in our neuronal network, allowing us to learn to respond in an appropriate way when everything else is chaotic.

However, when we do the same “everyday tasks” in a predictable way everyday of the week, we short-change ourselves. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has a song titled, “Everyday is Exactly the Same.” In the lyrics he sings that he thinks he can predict the future, because he keeps doing the same thing over and over again everyday. This, my friends, is when habits can be bad for your brain.

First and foremost, we are all here to gain new experiences in life. When we do the same thing day in and day out by rote, we deprive ourselves of the ability to experience something new. While we may enjoy the comfort of the familiar, it keeps us stuck in our patterns AND it can even rob our brains of growth.

When we drive the same route every day, or perform the same morning routine, we repeatedly use the neural roads that already exist. We also have the tendency to not be fully present when we perform an activity in a habitual way.

In essence, new activities build new pathways and new synapses. This is where growth occurs. Another reason to try new routes and new behaviors is that we are generally more stimulated by these new activities which builds even more pathways. So our capacity to learn can also increase.

The best part of all of this is that when we are more fully present in the moment, we have more to gain from it all. So I encourage each of us, myself included, to travel a slightly different path. Do your morning activities in a different order or with your non-dominant hand. You’ll be more present and your brain will have a greater capacity for growth.

Go forth and do something new or slightly different today and everyday, to help keep your brain growing!

Namaste.

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