Habitual Thought Patterns and How They Form

Growing up, there was a rubber estate not far from where I lived. About 200m into the estate was a beautiful running stream with clear water and fish. You had to descend a grassy path to get to it. Over time because of the frequency at which my friends and I used that grassy verge to the stream, a path formed that made our descent easier. The more we used it, the deeper and surer that path became.

A few weeks ago, I recalled the trek to the estate and the path – especially the path. How that path formed through our repeated use of the same track is a metaphor for how thoughts take hold in our brain. The more we think of something, the deeper that groove of thought becomes. Early in our lives, before we start to think independently for ourselves, what we learn from our parents and our immediate environment begins to shape a ‘path’ in our brain. In our early years of childhood, our brains experience what’s known as ‘critical windows’ of development. This refers to a short period of time when different parts of the brain are most vulnerable and receptive to external stimuli (read Robert Kotulak’s ‘Inside the Brain’ for a more detailed explanation). For example, a critical window for vision occurs in the first 6 months of life. If an infant does not experience the sensory input of light in that time, it is likely to result in some form of visual impairment.

There are critical windows during which our beliefs about the world around us form. What we experience during these critical windows create a ‘blueprint,’ so to speak, of our behaviours and patterns of thought. So, early in life, the input we receive from the people and stimuli in our immediate environment can create or ‘set’ a unique picture of reality for us. A child who grows up in an environment that is tense and fraught with danger is likely to grow up seeing the world as an unsafe place. Likely also that the child’s physical development will be accompanied by a higher capacity for producing adrenaline – the ‘fight or flight’ brain chemical.

Similarly, if a child grows up in a religious environment where the relationship with God is defined by reward and punishment (do something good and God will be happy and bless you; do something bad and you’ll make God angry and punish you), it is likely that this view of God as the dispenser of reward and punishment will persist. This will manifest in behaviour where we think that if something bad has happened, it is because I’ve made God angry in some way; or if something good has happened, it’s either because God is pleased with me or that God is merciful.

 Equally though, there are people who live just to serve and be everything good to others. It is likely that their early years were spent in the company of carers who had these very traits. I know of people who have an incredible amount of resilience and nothing seems to knock them off their stride. The people they grew up with probably demonstrated that same resilience.

Often, when we find ourselves caught in repetitive patterns of thought or behaviour – both positive and negative – the origin of it lies in the worldview that we acquired when very young. That is why it is important to question the source of our beliefs and how we came to accept those beliefs as truth.

We should also know why many of us stay fixated on events or thoughts that are negative. The first words we hear when we learn to move are usually phrases that are intended to keep us safe: ‘Don’t do that’….’don’t go up the stairs’……’stop that’…etc. That too becomes habitual thought and behaviour – being conditioned to recognise and avoid situations of danger.

What we do know from advances in neuroscience is that the brain has a greater capacity for flexibility and change than we have thought previously. It used to be thought that long-set patterns of thought and behaviour are almost impossible to change. Ironically, that very pattern of thought is itself an illustration of how the brain evolves and changes. The way we see and talk to ourselves determines our reality. If I continually say that I am incapable of changing, that’s what I’ll get. If I see myself as a person who is blessed with abundance and always with more than enough to help others, that too shapes my reality.

Numerous imaging studies have demonstrated conclusively how the very structure and pathways of the brain strengthen or weaken in response to our self-talk. That is why it is important to recognise the patterns of thought and behaviour that we acquired from young – at a time when we were incapable of choosing for ourselves. Recognising those beliefs that are detrimental to our growth and mental well-being is really the first step towards true freedom – when we control our thoughts and the results that we get from life as a result.

There is a proviso though. Dropping an old pattern of thought or habit requires forming a new and stronger pathway to replace it. Studies have shown that it takes between 2 – 6 months of consistent and conscious training for our brains to acquire a new habit and ‘unlearn’ an old way of thinking. So, while there are positive possibilities, there is some work involved as well. But do know this – we are a lot more capable of change than we think we are. First, be conscious and challenge those patterns of thought and behaviour that are no longer helpful to you.

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