Recent advances is neuroscience have revealed that our brains change in form in response to changes in behavior, environment, and neural processes. For decades, psychologists had viewed the brain as essentially fixed in its form after adulthood. While the brain could encode new learning and memories, it was widely thought that the functions of clusters of neurons were biologically predetermined and that no amount of activity could alter their designated function. It has only recently been discovered the extent to which the structure and function of parts of our brains can still be shaped after critical growth and development stages in the human life cycle.
For example, Jeffrey Schwartz at the University of California, Los Angeles, compared before and after brain scans of obsessive-compulsive patients who had undergone 19 weeks of mindfulness-based therapy. Each time they encountered an obsessive thought they were instructed to think, “My brain is generating another obsessive thought. Don’t I know it is just some garbage thrown up by a faulty circuit?” Two thirds of the patients improved dramatically and the brain scans showed reduced activity in the area of the brain affecting those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) “in exactly the way that drugs effective against OCD affect the brain.”
Additionally, Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, and with the help of the Dalai Lama, has conducted studies on Buddhist monks that show that brain’s emotional regions can strengthen with meditation practice. These studies are just two of many examples showing the brain’s emotional region can reform itself in response to deliberate practice.
Neurobiologists describe how the brain changes as synaptic pruning. New neural pathways in the brain are constantly being strengthened or weakened depending on how they are used. If a particular neuronal connection is used over and over again, such as through a repetitive action, it will become stronger.
The takeaway for us is that we can change the habits in any area of our lives with conscious effort, and over time those new habits can become second nature to us. The four stages of competence model describes the stages we go through when acquiring any skill. We move from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to conscious incompetence. Over time, with practice, any skill can become second nature as the brains neural pathways for and develop in accordance with a new habit.