Positive reinforcement and how the brain works

It is humongously empowering to understand how the brain and the mind work. So we can make it work better for us. (And it doesn’t matter whether we are training our own brain or the ones of other two or four legged mammals…)

Today neuroplasticity and the fact that the brain changes itself is a well accepted fact. We know that the brain is shaped and changed through our experiences. And it forms new neurological pathways throughout life. Which we can make work for us or against us. 

For example: neuroplasticity allows the neurons in the brain to form new pathways after a brain injury. The brain compensates through training. So that other areas of the brain take over the job that used to be done by the injured area. 

(A great and also simple read is Norman Doidge “The brain that changes itself”)

As grown ups we have hundreds of millions of neurological pathways in our nervous system. ("Which sock to put on first", "how you react when someone says XYZ", "how you feel when someone gives you “that look”, "whether we feel soul-crushingly criticised by something or regard it as great feedback", "what you do anxious about"…) These are all neurological pathways in our brain which are associated with a particular action, behaviour, thought, or experience.

Get this: Every time we engage in the same behaviour it activates that same pathway. Hence the pathway is strengthened. “Neurons that fire together wire together” - Norman Doidge

The stronger a pathway is, the more likely our brain is going to use that pathway again, and again. Hence it is an absolutely terrible idea to relive or re-traumatise yourself by recounting a bad experience in every single detail. Especially if you get upset or angry about it all over again. Once you can talk about it with no emotional connection to it, you’re good. Otherwise you are just reinforcing the problematic state and training the brain to do soapboxing. (Which is why some elderly people are so good at being grumpy or on their soapbox, they just had a lifetime of strengthening that neurological pathway… If you don’t want to be like that in old age, then stop the behaviour now…)

It is also an equally terrible idea to write down all your worries every day. You’d just be making that pathway stronger and stronger. Noooooooo, please don’t! Unless of course you want to train your brain to get better at doing anxiety. Then by all means: knock yourself out…

As I said: The stronger the pathway is, the more likely the brain is going to use that pathway again, and again.

The best news is: We can literally rewire our brains with repeated and direct attention! As I usually explain in my first session: it is like walking through a field of tall grass. When you walk the same path regularly the grass is already trampled down, it’s easier to find the path. Yes, in the beginning you might need a machete. Also when you stop using the path the grass will grow back…

How does this relate to training your own brain…?

When you focus on doing something a different way, e.g. learning to be calm or regarding everything that is being said as possibly valuable feedback, eating healthy, etc. you are creating new neural pathways. The more repetition you get doing the new thing the stronger that pathway becomes. Over time, the old pathway will become weaker and weaker and the new behaviour becomes natural to you.

It is also important to understand that when the reward pathway is activated, the brain becomes flooded with dopamine. Which is a neurotransmitter and as such it carries messages from one neuron to the next, along a pathway. 

Dopamine makes us feel good, which is instant positive reinforcement. Hence it strengthens that pathway. It makes us want to do that activity again to get that ‘feel good’ dopamine rush again. (It also works against us if we’re not careful…)

Positive reinforcement works because it simply feels good.

Speed and reliability of the positive reinforcement are key ingredients. In order to create a new pathway the brain needs to make a connection between X behaviour and Y reward quickly. The positive reinforcement needs to be fast (under 3 seconds) and it needs to be reliable (every single time). 

When you do that you are essentially utilising how the brain works to create changes within yourself. You are training the brain to find it more pleasurable to do the new thing than the old behaviour. Consequently it wants to do the new behaviour more often.

Over time the pathway to the new positive behaviour becomes stronger and easier for the brain to do, and the pathway for the negative behaviour weakens.

How cool is that…?