Our bodies and brains love to work in patterns-- it's a simple way to minimize brainpower and eliminate excess calorie expenditure. Many of these are useful; others may have been helpful at one time, but have become problematic. Working on changing these can be quite a challenging experience, especially if we're dealing with something like our breathing. In this article, we'll take a look at the mechanics of changing patterned behavior in our body-- and why it takes time.
If I asked you to balance on one foot right now (and that is something your body is able to accommodate)– which foot would you pick up?
When you reach up to open a cabinet, which arm do you use?
Do your shoes wear more on the inside, or the outside of the soles?
These aren’t likely things that you have to think about, but patterns that are long-established in your body. For example, my brain feels more confident stepping with my right leg and reaching right arm– they’re stronger and more dextrous. It also knows that my balance is stronger on my left foot– since breaking my right big toe 25 years ago, my right foot doesn’t have the same strength or mobility.
These engrained patterns of movement occur through simple pathways in the brain stem called central pattern generators. Their job is to generate reflexive movement– that is, movement you don’t need to think about. You might think of these as neurological or physiological shortcuts– the easiest way for our body to get from A to B with the minimal amount of physical and mental energy expended.
In repeating the same patterns, I’m reinforcing those deep neural pathways, making it more likely I will continue to use them in the same way. I’m also denying myself the experience of other patterns. In my body, this means that my left leg is likely to continue to be weaker than my right; my left arm less dextrous than my right (and my left latissimus dorsi does not stretch as comfortably or easily as my right!); and my left foot will always be my go-to for demonstrating a balancing pose.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” -Henry Ford
Our familiar patterns aren’t necessarily bad, but we there’s a consequence to limiting or movements. Over time, sticking to our familiar patterns can mean that our body starts to shut down access to other patterns. This can be neurological or physiological– neuronal pathways close down, or the tissue itself changes so that we’re not able to move in as many ways. This often happens so gradually that we don’t notice we’ve “lost” a movement until we attempt it. “I used to be able to do that,” we think, or, “man, it sucks getting older.”
Changing these reflexive patterns takes time and a certain amount of diligence. Sometimes it’s a case of having to remind ourselves to do something differently– for example, I have to make an active effort to open a cupboard with my left hand. If we’re dealing with physiological changes, we might have to engage in more physical effort to create tissue change as we “rewire” the brain. There are many ways to approach this (with my clients, I use a variety of tools and methods to teach this in fun, accessible ways).
In our next blog, we’ll take a look at the frustration that comes from trying to change patterns, and how we can leverage that to our own advantage. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Can you think of an engrained pattern in your body– perhaps it’s something that’s just a habit, or the result of a long-ago injury? Have you tried to change it? What was that experience like?