Lessons from a Tooth

I amazed myself the other day…I was cleaning the kitchen bench and stacking the dishwasher when I picked up a kids coloured plastic cup with a bit of water in it.  I caught myself looking carefully into the cup before I threw the water in the sink and put the cup in the dishwasher.  I had done all of this before I even knew what I was doing – to the observer probably so quick as to be unnoticeable – and I have probably done it many times before, but this time I stopped and thought about it.  What was I looking for?  And then it hit me – I was looking for a tooth.  Long ago one of my children had put a tooth they had lost, in a plastic cup, in some water ready for collection by the tooth fairy and before they had a chance to take the cup to their bedside table I had cleared the bench and without a glance thrown it down the sink.  Their reaction (extreme grief) to the loss of the tooth and my emotional response (remorse and regret) to that reaction  was enough to ensure that forever forward I would unconsciously check plastic cups with water for teeth before putting them in the dishwasher!! Amazing!!

This is a small example but I share the story to remind us that every day we are unconsciously doing routine tasks, acting in certain ways and most importantly thinking certain things that stems from our history.  What are called neural pathways form in the brain as quickly as one incident with a tooth and cause us to behave in certain ways when confronted with a situation that reminds the brain of the original incident.  What really struck me about my tooth example is that it only needed to happen once.  Imagine how super effective it is when an incident is repeated again and again and again.  Really useful when learning a new skill (I am still pretty near perfect with my times tables).  Not so useful when the pathway is negative or destructive (a child constantly being called stupid).

It used to be believed that once the brain was wired by a certain age, it could not be changed.  But advances in neuroscience are revealing more and more evidence to show that it is possible to change and re-wire the brain – the concept of neuroplasticity.  This is great news for those of us wanting to change something in our lives that is holding us back – opening us up to the possibility that anything really is possible if you set your mind to it.

Think of a snow capped mountain in spring when the snow is melting the water is flowing down the well worn rivers and creeks it has been flowing down for ever.  The only way to stop the water filling the same riverbeds year after year is to do something to the path of the water – divert it or block it altogether.  It is the same with the brain – we need to find the path and divert or block it.  Diversion techniques are good because the water has to go somewhere and you can decide where the new path will be.

Now looking for teeth in plastic cups of water has little impact on my life so let’s take an example like biting your nails (I haven't met anyone who does it that doesn't want to stop)… Firstly catch yourself biting your nails – so become aware and conscious that you are doing it then decide what you want to do instead and do it eg get out a nail file and start filing them instead.  A good start.  Even better go upstream and work out what the trigger was for the nail biting and divert that.  So if you bite your nails because you feel anxious in certain situations learn different ways to manage your anxiety.

We do so many things on auto-pilot that making a change is sometimes very difficult but don’t give up – it is all possible.

If you would like to know more about this I highly recommend the book “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge.  And the 2004 Film “What the Bleep Do We Know”.  Both fascinating accounts of the possibilities.

Catriona xx

Thanks to http://thatreofsunshine.blogspot.com.au/2011/07/who-says-tooth-fairy-doesnt-exist.html for the cute picture