People often use this expression to refer to what they see as their inability to change, as though “being wired that way” reflects a rigid and fixed reality that leaves no room for flexibility. They believe they have no responsibility for this rigidity because they were born this way, and have no power to change their genetic makeup. In reality, there is actually a lot that each of us can do to make our responses and behaviors more appropriate and effective.
As we saw in the previous blog on brain connections, nature and nurture, genetics and experience are not static notions that have nothing to do with one another, but rather the opposite. They are fluid and constantly interacting, influencing and changing each other’s course.
I think two key words are vital in understanding human emotions and behaviors. These two words define two different qualities, one physiological and the other psychological. They are: plasticity and awareness.
Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change through new learning in order to adapt to different situations, circumstances and needs.
Awareness refers to the mind’s ability to be conscious of our thoughts feelings and actions and, ultimately, of ourselves.
Because of our brain’s plasticity, changes appropriate to different situations and circumstances are possible, increasing our adaptability and ability to function. An example of this is seen in experiments with rats who suffered from stroke. These studies clearly show how their brains, immediately after getting a stroke, begin to rebuild around the affected areas. Within a few hours or few days, often the areas surrounding the stroke have rebuilt to such an extent that the damage caused by the stroke is fully or partially compensated by the new growth. Of course, the location and severity of a stroke contribute to how well the brain recovers, but what is remarkable is to see how neurons promptly adjust to changed conditions, rallying to control the damage and repair it.
Another way in which the brain compensates for damage is by delegating activities previously carried out by damaged neurons to healthy neurons in another area of the brain. The video on brain plasticity is a perfect example of plasticity, which allows the brain to function at its best under very different – and at times less than optimal – circumstances.
The same applies to our emotional responses to different situations and environments. If we pay attention to our feelings, reactions and body responses, we can engage in an “internal’ conversation. This internal conversation takes place between the part that is scared and numb and another part that acts as parent, telling the other to calm down, to approach things this way or that, and to explore healthy solutions. In this way, we can maintain a reflective stance that keeps us at a good distance from the trauma, while providing us with ways of dealing with it.
The ability to engage in such a dialogue is only possible if we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, which affect our reactions, as well as the part that stays calm. Our emotional responses – panic, fear, confusion, and so on – are contained and managed by the part I call “parental” because it provides reassurance, support and guidance, just like a good parent does with a scared child.
The more awareness we have, the more empowered we feel. In turn, the more empowered we feel, the better able we are to deal with whatever challenges we are facing.
So, the next time you feel you are just wired that way, rethink your statement, and change it to “I can rewire myself.”