Neuroplasticity - the mechanism of change
WHAT IS A NEURAL NETWORK?
A neural network or pathway is a sequence of neurons that fire together resulting in a mood, thought, behaviour, physical sensation, or other response. Some neural pathways are deeply ingrained; they have developed over time and with repeated experiences. Some examples are day-to-day habits like brushing your teeth when you wake up in the morning and knowing how to type or drive your car. They can also include the response stimulated by the familiar touch, smell, or sound of a loved one. Most of us have key neural networks that are triggered by stress and these determine how we react or respond to a given situation, whether positively or negatively. Negative neural pathways that were established by negative life experiences or negative habits often provide the explanation as to how and why people offend.
PWR Health Consultants helps our patients learn the tools, skills, and strategies necessary for coping with stressful situations, thereby creating new and positive neural pathways in the brain that ultimately help them to control their thoughts and actions. However, the new neural pathways need to be strengthened through practice and integration. This is the work of therapy.
What is neuroplasticity?
It has been a long-held view of society that people are not prone to change once they reached adulthood – in other words they believe the adult human brain is fixed and its circuits are immutable, unable to change. Holding this belief means that a person can be labeled as "bad" if they do something wrong and therefore its okay to give them long prison sentences that provide no hope for changing their lives. New research now shows that the adult brain can in fact change in its structure, make-up, and function.
Neuroplasticity is what we call this attribute of the brain that allows for change to take place and for new neural pathways to be created, strengthened and maintained. Just as someone who injures one hand can learn to use the other demonstrates the brain’s capacity to adapt and learn a simple functional behaviour, our understanding that the brain can absolutely learn new ways to think and react is a game changer. If brains can change, then behaviors can change and if behaviors can change, then people can change.
It is important to recognize that old neural networks, which are responsible for negative behaviour patterns, took years to form and become dominant. These negative behaviour patters lead to offending behavior. In the same way, new neural networks need time to become established and appropriately wired into the brain, leading to positive behavior patterns. Neural pathways also need practice (repetition), experience and positive reinforcement in order to be strengthened and more easily accessed in periods of stress or fear.
Neuroplasticity revolutionizes the conversation when it comes to how society deals with offenders. These ideas present significant implications which need to be considered in relation to sentencing and opportunities for access to treatment. We can no longer say, "Lock them up, and throw away the key." Now that we know that treatment is possible, it becomes a moral imperative.