A Neuroscientist Says We Can Rewire Our Neural Pathways — Here's How

Neuroscientist, psychiatrist, & bestselling author By Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D.
Neuroscientist, psychiatrist, & bestselling author
Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D., is a neuroscientist, psychiatrist, and award-winning and bestselling author. She earned her degrees at Oxford University and King’s College London.

Image by Milles Studio / Stocksy

The principle of neuroplasticity—the power to create new pathways in the subconscious and conscious parts of our brain—underpins all of my work as a coach, and it is the key to any deep and lasting shift in our habits and thinking. But what does this idea of neuroplasticity look like in practice? Here, I offer the ways in which we can achieve our goals and truly "rewire" our brains.

Metacognition: The first step to rewiring your brain.

If you want to know more about rewiring your brain to create new, healthier thought habits, the starting point has to involve an honest appraisal of your current thought patterns and behaviors. This is likely to involve some delving into your unconscious, raising deeply held, sometimes irrational and self-limiting beliefs to the surface so that you can examine them. There are a few ways you can help yourself to observe these beliefs at work. They include:

  • Journaling: Making a note of the repetitive thoughts that characterize your internal narrative throughout the day will help you "hear" the way you talk to yourself.
  • Practicing presence: Breath-based meditation, or another mindfulness-based practice, will help you learn to observe your thoughts rather than getting caught up in them.
  • Writing a list: Start with three things you want to achieve, along with any self-limiting thoughts you have that stop you from believing you can.

All of these practices will help you to develop metacognition. This skill is characterized by an ability to "think about thinking," enabling you to become "aware of your awareness" rather than functioning on autopilot. Often those who are most troubled by their lives and trapped within dysfunctional thinking find it difficult to develop this sense. Their thoughts feel literal in the sense that it may seem impossible to separate their perception of the world from its actuality. 

But even for people who feel unable to see beyond their thought habits, these habits will help, over time, to foster a greater sense of perspective. Using journaling, meditation, and self-analysis, it is possible to develop a greater level of awareness about your neural pathways and the patterns in their activity that dictate how you unconsciously react to triggers and events. Your default reactions may take the form of anger (you lose your temper), distancing (you shut down), displacement through "acting out" (binge eating), or it may point toward a healthier emotional life (you reach out for emotional support). Working on yourself toward recognizing your unique reaction habits and the thoughts that underlie them will enhance your self-awareness and put you in a position to lay the groundwork to think and react in ways that serve you better in future.

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But what is metacognition? Let's break it down.

In neuroscientific terms, metacognition is a function of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The word itself comes from the root of the word meta meaning "beyond"–in other words, "beyond thinking." The PFC monitors sensory signals from other brain regions and uses feedback loops to direct our thinking by constantly updating our brain depending on what is playing out in the outside world. Metacognition encompasses all of our memory-monitoring and self-regulation, all of our consciousness and self-awareness.

Our capacity to engage in metacognition dictates our capacity to effectively regulate our own thinking and maximize our awareness and the potential for learning and change. Admittedly, it is difficult to unlearn something that has been etched into your brain by years of reactivation. If you are serious about setting about a "rewire" of your brain, you need to be patient and persistent.

Over time, by raising awareness again and again of the "autopilot" brain pathways that "run" us when we are at our most unconscious, we are able to recognize the barriers that are holding us back in our own minds and forge a path toward positive change. It's also crucial to replace the old thought habits with new, more consciously chosen, empowering ones. There is no way to "unlearn" what you already know; instead, you need to habituate new ones.

How can we create new habits in our brains?

Creating an action board is a great way to help you focus your brain on the vision of your future that you act on to manifest. Visual images are a powerful way to communicate with your deep subconscious, so focusing on images that act as a visual metaphor for the things you want to manifest will help you find the confidence to seize opportunities when they present themselves. Try to choose imagery that is symbolic when creating your board rather than thinking literally. For example, a loving relationship may be symbolized by a picture of holding hands, a greater sense of personal freedom may be represented by a kite in the sky, and enhanced confidence by a strong tree with deep roots. Make sure you look at your action board a few times a day, and as you look at it, imagine your dreams in the present, as if you have already achieved them. 

Positive affirmations can be a helpful tool to help you replace insecurities and anxieties with encouraging mantras. Whenever one of your habituated self-sabotaging thoughts intrudes, meet it with a calm repetition of a mantra that contradicts it. So, if your internal voice tells you, "I'm weak, so people always take advantage of me," respond by repeating to yourself, "I'm learning to say no more to external requests so that I can say yes more to myself." 

Finally, when you've decided to embark on some changes, make yourself accountable for them by sharing your aims and ambitions with a friend or by using an app like Momentum or HabitShare. Commit to your new awareness-raising habits and tell your friends about your action board and affirmations. Ask them to check in with you from time to time so you can encourage each other and keep you both on track. 

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