Plus: How to change neural pathways or to create entirely new ones
Neural pathways. Likely you’ve heard of them before, but what are neural pathways exactly? How do they work, what do they look like and how do they affect our habits and behaviour? Plus: We look at how you can change neural pathways for positive results and how to create entirely new ones.
And, ultimately, how can we use this info to understand people better in our businesses?
Well, you might recall our recent post on the basic building blocks of your brain – brain cells called neurons. We all have 100 billion or so of them, and they can each connect with 250 000 surrounding neurons because they are senders/receivers of information in your brain. And, if neurons are the transmitters, neural pathways are what give the information they send in our brains meaning:
WHAT ARE NEURAL PATHWAYS?
Neural pathways are the connections that form between the neurons in your brain. And you can think of them as a pattern that represents any thought about anything you’ve ever had – as simple as an apple, as complicated as love and integrity, every thought is a neural pathway.
Now, we’re often taught to think of our brains as computers, a storeroom with boxes or ROM that your brain can fetch (recall) when you need it. But that’s not accurate. Your thoughts are more like patterns than boxes. Neural pathways are the connections between neurons that light up when you think of something for the first time, and the connections form a pattern in your brain. Your brain has now attached meaning to that specific pattern.
And the next time you think of that same thing, the same pattern lights up again, the same neural pathway. So neural pathways are how our brains store our thoughts.
TYPES OF NEURAL PATHWAYS
There are many technical types of pathways with big names, but for understanding how the brain impacts behaviour in business, all we need to know is that there are dominant (well-formed) pathways and lesser (fragile new pathways).
When your brain processes a new thought, it starts off as a lesser pathway. Like a baby trying to walk for the first time (neurons connecting from the brain to muscles, for balance etc.) and battling a bit. But the more you do it over and over again in the same way, the stronger and more dominant the neural pathway becomes. And now, today, as an adult, you don’t need to think about walking anymore, it’s a well-formed dominant neural pathway in your brain.
Now, it’s the same with every thought that you have. Those you have over and over again become dominant. And new ones that you don’t practice often get deleted by cells called gluons after about 48 hours.
HOW MANY NEURAL PATHWAYS IN THE BRAIN?
Neural pathways are not set (more on that later), so there isn’t any specific number existing in your brain. You’re born with a blank slate and have to create them as you go. We can calculate the max limits, though. If you have 100 billion neurons, and each can make 250 000 connections, that’s 100 billion times 250 000 possible connections, which is about 25 000 trillion or 25 quadrillion.
To give you an idea of how much that is, there are only about 250 billion stars in our milky way galaxy. So you have 1 million times as many potential neural pathways as the stars in our galaxy. Or, consider the Ara constellation, it’s 24 quadrillion miles away (4 000 light-years), and it would take us about 64 million years to fly that far with humanity’s best current spaceship. And your brain has the potential for 25 quadrillion connections!
PS: All of our brains have the same capacity. There’s no such thing as dumb or smart. One neuron is enough to store 250 000 bits of information – which is enough to pass matric. So why doesn’t everyone pass matric? Ah, it’s not a capacity issue, it’s behaviour – more on that lower down.
WHAT TRAVELS THROUGH A NEURAL PATHWAY?
Neural pathways are highways for electrochemical signals. When a neuron receives a signal from another neuron that it has to pass on along the neuron pathway, it sends an electrical charge to its own axons (see details on the parts of neurons) that signals specific chemicals to be released by its neurotransmitters. These chemicals cross into the synapses (empty space between neurons) and connect with the specific next neuron’s dendrites (receivers), where the chemicals are converted into electrical signals again. And so on, all along the neural pathway.
HOW ARE NEURAL PATHWAYS FORMED (CREATED)?
A new neural pathway forms when you encounter a piece of information (thought) for the first time. For example, a young child already has existing neural pathways for common fruit like apples and bananas. But the first time they encounter something exotic, like dragon fruit, for example, the brain checks: is it an apple? No. Is it a banana? No. So it must be something new – and a new neural pathway is formed.
Then the child interacts with the thought: what colour is it, what does it smell like etc. The more the child thinks about the dragon fruit, the more the pathway is used and the more dominant it becomes. If the child never thinks about dragon fruit again, gluons will come and erase the pathway in about 24 hours, and the pathway becomes “inactive”.
NEURAL PATHWAYS AND BEHAVIOUR
So, perhaps you can already see how neural pathways can affect your behaviour and habits. The way your brain created a neural pathway (thought about something) can impact how you respond to that thing for the rest of your life because if you think of that thing the same way over and over again, it becomes your dominant neural pathway.
Neural pathways and memory
When you receive a new piece of information, studying for a test maybe, a new neural pathway is formed. The more you think or use that neural pathway, the more dominant it becomes. So, the more you revise your study material over and over, the easier it becomes to remember specific things in your work. If you don’t revise, you forget things.
Learning and neural pathways
The same is true when you learn something. The moment you learn it, a neural pathway is formed. If you keep using that new skill, it becomes dominant. But if you don’t practice it, the pathway is unused and your brain eventually “disconnects” it.
Neural pathways and your habits
Now, neural pathways get really interesting when it comes to more complex things like emotions tied to thoughts. If, for example, the first time you encountered an apple, it really scared you, a neural pathway forms that links apples with fear. And if, for whatever silly reason, you keep having a fear response to apples over and over again, you might grow up to be afraid of apples.
Silly as that example sounds, it’s exactly how it works. If a young child grows up afraid of a dominant male figure (for example), they might have a fear response to all males even as an adult. If you grow up believing that you are bad with numbers, guess what – you’ll suck at math because the neural pathway your brain associates with math is a negative one.
That’s how neural pathways can affect the behaviour and habits that can make or break us as people. And, of course, we’re going to be posting a lot more in the future about that. But first, let’s be amazed at our own potential:
THE AMAZING THING ABOUT NEURAL PATHWAYS
Remember we said neural pathways are patterns? Well, your brain associates each thought with a pattern – a series of neurons connected by a specific neural pathway. And, what’s truly amazing is that no two people’s pathways for the same thing ever look the same.
The thought for an apple in your head might run along the left side of your brain, while the person next to you’s apple runs along the right side of their brain (actually, the latest science talks about quadrants and octants, not halves anymore). And with over 25 quadrillion potential routes any single thought could take, it’s no surprise that every neural pathway you have is as unique as your fingerprint.
Think about how amazing that is. It means that no one on earth can or will ever be able to think exactly like you (or form the connections between thoughts the way you can). But, amazing as they are, there is a problem with neural pathways.
THE PROBLEM WITH NEURAL PATHWAYS
We mentioned earlier that neural pathways can form negative associations, which can have a bad influence on how you behave. For example, the first time I took a geography test, I failed, therefore I will for the rest of my life believe I am bad at geography.
You can see how this can become a problem, right? Neural pathways are extremely powerful in determining our behaviour. If I’m afraid to try new things or new ideas, it’s probably because there’s a neural pathway in my brain that triggers a fear response when I receive new information. And you can imagine how bad that can be if I’m an employee in your business, right? I’d fight vehemently against every new change (system, policy, target etc.) you try to bring about.
Fortunately, though, we’re not stuck with our existing neural pathways. We can change them.
CAN NEURAL PATHWAYS BE CHANGED?
Of course, we can change neural pathways. It’s how we learn and grow and develop as people. We review our old ideas – like a person who’s afraid of spiders – and get new information that gradually changes our perception – oh, spiders are actually quite small and you can just squish them, so no need to be that afraid anymore.
It’s what we call neuroplasticity, first described by Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski in 1948, and studied by a whole host of neuroscientists like Michael Merzenich, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel. And all it is is to say your brain can form new neural connections and basically change how you think about things.
Now, the exciting bit about neuroplasticity is that you can actively and consciously use it to rewire your brain, to reprogramme yourself to believe new things or see things differently.
REPROGRAMMING NEURAL PATHWAYS
The best way to understand how to rewire or reprogramme your brain is for us to show you. And we have an actual, awesome example:
Eight years ago, LifeXchange Solution’s founder and CEO, Dr Cobus Oosthuizen, wanted to show everyone how powerful the brain is. So he took on an impossible-seeming challenge. He’d never run a marathon in his life and didn’t like running at all. So, he set out to successfully complete one of the toughest endurance races in the world.
The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon is a 7-day, 250km unsupported (meaning no help, you have to carry everything with you for 7 days) endurance race through the Kalahari desert. And everyone including the race organisers said it was impossible for anyone but the most experienced endurance runners in the world to even complete it.
So, Dr Cobus didn’t practice running 250km. All he did was mentally reprogramme himself to truly believe he could complete the race over a course of six weeks. And guess what? He successfully completed it in 2011, again in 2015 and again in 2018. Check out the whole story of proof you can rewire your brain. (Or listen to the podcasts where he shares how he does it under Energise Your Life.)
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE A NEURAL PATHWAY?
This is actually a very hot topic, with different scientists debating for years how long it actually takes to change a neural pathway and create a new way of thinking or habit. What we do know, based on how neural pathways work (repetition makes them dominant) is that you have to repeat the thought or action over and over again to make it stick.
A 2009 research paper by the University College of London says it takes on average about 66 days of repetition to form a habit (which could indicate a change in the neural pathway). But it’s different from person to person. Some people change habits in as little as 18 days, others take as long as 254 days of repetition.
We have another cool example: In 2015, engineer Destin Sandlin introduced the world to the backwards brain bike. It’s a bike where the steering is reversed. And it’s super hard to ride because the neural pathway in your brain is already formed. To change the pathway to learn to ride the bike took Destin himself 8 months of practice. Others reported taking up to a year or as little as six months. So it takes a while to change an existing neural pathway.
But there is a shortcut (which Dr Cobus spotted and exploited to ride the same bike right, first-time and with no practice – see our post on the backwards brain bike). And it’s to create a new neural pathway instead.
CAN YOU CREATE NEW NEURAL PATHWAYS INSTEAD?
Yes, you can. And often, it’s the best way to really tackle an impossible-seeming challenge. When Dr Cobus saw it took on average 8 months for people to ride the backwards brain bike, he said: “hang on, why don’t you just create a new neural pathway instead?”
And it worked. He never tried to ride the bike, but instead took a few days to build a new neural pathway instead. And he got on the bike and was able to ride it first-time.
WATCH: A NEW NEURAL PATHWAY TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE
HOW TO (EXERCISES) CREATE POSITIVE NEW NEURAL PATHWAYS
Dr Cobus documented his entire experience creating a new neural pathway, where he shows you step for step how it works and what exercises he does to create a new neural pathway – watch the entire Cyclops Challenge playlist on the LifeXchange YouTube Channel.
But the big thing is that this is what we at LifeXchange Solutions actually do. This is the kind of powerful information that sits behind our neuromanagement and all our organisational management solutions.
So, if you find your business that you have employees that get stuck, or there’s a lack of engagement or performance, it’s usually a brain thing. And we can help you fix that using our neuroscience insights – contact LifeXchange here.
There’s an awesome podcast here on how to change a neural pathway.
You can also get some remarkable insights into people’s behaviour – and how to use it in business – with our unique behavioural theory, the Human Development Cycle.
And check out the weird science being employee motivation.