What We Can Learn, We Can Unlearn

Posted on September 6, 2011

Neuroplasticity And Addiction Recovery
Peter Soderman, SMART Recovery® Facilitator, Mexico

Brain Activity

Our brains have the ability to rewire themselves, changing structurally and functionally, in response to changes in our environment and our experiences. For most of the twentieth century, the general consensus among neuroscientists was that the brain was relatively fixed and immutable after a certain critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by new findings and evidence, especially detailed brain imaging that has conclusively proven that our brains retain a significant ability to change, which is called “plasticity,” into adulthood, and even old-age. This characteristic of the brain, called “Neuroplasticity,” is responsible not only for our ability to learn and unlearn, but also for the ability of some people to recover from serious injuries, strokes, and diseases that disable or disrupt some of their brain functions.

Our brain is totally fluid, what we can learn we can unlearn just as quickly. Our neural circuits are pruned to the tune of 20 billion synapses a day, or so, during adolescence, and this practice continues, although at a slower rate, for our entire lives. Pathways we don’t use simply shrivel-up and die. We forget people, places, and things; we lose skills, some acquired with a great deal of effort; we change habits, likes, dislikes, political parties; we adapt new ways of doing things, discarding the old; in other words, if we are the sum of our experiences, we become different people over time, and this is all a result of neuroplasticity.

Baseball players have batting practice every day; actors rehearse again, and again, and again; in fact, every learned skill must be practiced to maintain the neural circuits we have created, or we lose it, over time. Jascha Heifetz, the renowned violinist is rumored to have said: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”

Neglect and atrophy is not the only way our circuits can change. When we change our minds about something, we really change our minds. When we receive new information that changes how we think or feel about someone or something, we literally alter synaptic connections all over our brains. Neurons that used to be connected to one place are now connected somewhere else, firing with different neural circuits. We don’t have to worry about the mechanics of it, we just make a decision and it’s done for us through the process of neuroplasticity.

Of course, we all know we have a built-in “forgetter,” and we see evidence of it every day, but is neglect and inattention the only way our neural circuits can change? Fortunately for us, the answer to that is no. Just as new information that we deem important can change our thinking and our beliefs, we can also change habit or working memory using the same tools. Let’s say we have always done something a certain way, perhaps because a parent or teacher showed us early in life, and years later we find a new way to do the same thing that’s much more efficient, and produces a better result. It might be a woodworking technique, a golf swing, or a sewing method, what it is doesn’t matter. The fact is, we can change habitual behavior as easily as we can change our minds. All it requires is that we pay attention, and practice the new method or technique until it becomes our new habit. Connections in the brain that used to exist will disappear, replaced by the new connections we create simply by changing the way we think, and subsequently, our actions.

Oftentimes, change isn’t easy, and I don’t mean to imply that it is. If it was, there would be far fewer addicts, and SMART Recovery® could be a one-point program. All I’m trying to say is that your brain is constantly changing, and you have ultimate control over it – for good or ill. A future post on my blog Powerless No Longer will address how we learn addiction, and the factors that influence us along the way. I just want you to realize that just because your brain has formed certain connections, and you have learned to respond to certain cues and triggers, doesn’t mean you can’t go back, make new connections, and form new habits that countermand and supersede the old.

“The forgoing is an excerpt from the forthcoming book “Powerless No Longer” by Pete Soderman, and is the property of the author.”

About The Author: Pete Soderman is a Smart Facilitator who co-founded the SMART meeting in Wilmington, NC with Mike Werner, and is currently starting a new SMART meeting in Ajijic, Jalisco Mexico. He is also involved in a Spanish-language meeting that will be starting soon in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. He is currently writing a book about addiction titled: “Powerless No Longer.” He has been involved in the addiction and treatment field for many years, and has started several recovery meetings.

8 thoughts on “What We Can Learn, We Can Unlearn

  1. Sascha G.

    Dear Pete,
    Bill Wilson and AA parted company with the Oxford Group for just that reason: Bill Wilson did not want to impose a particular brand of spiritual experience on anyone. That’s why it’s a Higher Power “as we understood Him.” Some AAs are specific about the name of their HP and others prefer an HP to remain anonymous. “Spiritus contra spiritum” was the saying of Carl Jung, who famously refered to alcoholism as a “low level search for God.” The message of “mindfulness, rationality, and personal responsibility” resonates throughout the 12 Steps,if we are attuned to them. I appreciate your thoughtful contribution to creating a wider conversation about alcoholism and addiction!

  2. Peregrine

    What if you’re a Christian who does believe in God, AND you also believe in self-responsibility and rational approaches that empower people to change? Is Smart Recovery only for aetheists, agnostics and people who dislike/disavow AA entirely?

    1. Admin Post author

      Thanks for your post, Peregrine.

      “SMART Recovery helps participants identify and live consistently with their own ultimate values and beliefs. We recognize that spiritual beliefs are of great importance to many, and support those beliefs and their expression. At the same time, we believe that the power to change addictive behaviors resides within each individual and does not depend upon adherence to any particular spiritual viewpoint.”

      SMART Recovery is open to, and used by, people of all faiths and also by people who do not subscribe to any faith or spiritual practice.

      Many who attend SMART meetings and otherwise participate in SMART also attend 12-step support group meetings including AA and NA. This choice is entirely up to individual participants who are free to choose for themselves the tools that work best for them in their own individual recovery. Our meetings are intended for discussion of SMART tools. Meetings are positive and solution oriented and criticism of other programs is not condoned.

      To learn more about SMART Recovery, visit http://www.smartrecovery.org

      We look forward to meeting you!

  3. stevefraser

    “….The fact is, we can change habitual behavior as easily as we can change our minds. All it requires is that we pay attention, and practice the new method or technique until it becomes our new habit…” Well, yes and no. The above is sometimes true, but not always. We must also understand the role of the brains reward circuits and midbrain structures in addictive thinking and behaviors. In any event, let’s make sure we get behind the new medications that block cravings on the biological level. This is not the alpha and omega of recovery, but in my experience drug/alcohol cravings are the primary causative factor in relapse. In the vast majority of cases relapse has a biological cause.

    1. Pete Soderman

      Point taken, Steve, just a couple of comments:

      1. Powerless No Longer isn’t written for professionals, or those individuals necessarily under professional care. The target audience is the large majority of addicts who manage to recover with either minimal help or no help at all. Most addicts do manage to recover without help from the pharmaceutical industry, after all, and PNL is merely meant to serve as an introduction to cognitive and mindfulness techniques.

      2. This post is one small excerpt from a 10,000 word chapter, which covers the reward circuits quite well – in terms a layman can understand and relate to. Another chapter, later in the book, does discuss forms of professional help available, but that’s not my primary thrust, nor is it my area of expertise.

  4. Pete Soderman

    Thank you, David, for your kind and insightful comment. The first step of the Oxford Group was: “I am powerless over sin, I am defeated by it,” and so we have a ubiquitous recovery method that works for those for whom it works, but not for most of us. I have often speculated how different the treatment landscape would be today if poor Ebby Thatcher had stumbled into a Zen Buddhist monastery instead of a Fundamentalist Christian group, and carried to Bill Wilson a message of mindfulness, rationality, and personal responsibility instead of sin, redemption, and surrender to an external and preferably supernatural power. Clearly, programs such as SMART wouldn’t have such an uphill battle for acceptance, and perhaps there would be no need for books such as Powerless No Longer.

  5. David Powers

    I’m looking forward especially to the coming sequel and the book, as I believe that teaching powerlessness is one of the greatest disservices of some recovery methods, one that reinforces old habits or–worse still–creates new habits of helplessness and substitute addiction to the program. Thanks for reminding us that we are–all of us–unfinished business and we have control over how we understand our present and our futures.

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