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  • Writer's picturecoswaycbt

Walking New Paths: A Metaphor for Shaping the Mind

A rambler standing on a clear path through a forrest

Navigating the Mind's Landscape

Picture a rambler who regularly walks a well-trodden path through the woods. They know this path extremely well and has a certain sense of comfort and familiarity each time that they walk it.

However, eventually they get to the point where it doesn’t suit them any more to keep walking this path…they've grown tired of the familiar scenery and have become aware of the fact that there is another path they could take – a more challenging one that winds its way up a nearby hill.

A rambler standing on the top of a cliff looking across a beautiful coastal landscape

They envision that the view from the top of that hill will be much more spectacular than from this familiar path.

This idea of a rambler walking different paths echoes the concept of a therapy journey being one of change.

It represents an opportunity in which we can adapt to challenging circumstances and shape our minds into helpful perspectives.

It is a metaphor for the incredible journey of neural transformation that each and every one of us can undergo.

The Well-Trodden Path: The Familiar Neural Landscape

We can think of the familiar neural landscape as being like our favourite trails in the woods, or our favoured ways home.

It’s the route that we know like the back of our hands…it’s automatic and almost unconscious.

When the rambler walks on their usual path it’s easy and comfortable because it’s what they're used to doing, even if at times they feel a bit bored with the route and wonder if there might be a better alternative.

Similarly, our brains have pathways within them that are linked to our thinking patterns and our behavioural habits; when we’re following them they’re easy and familiar - we feel comfortable on some level.

But perhaps on another level we don’t feel so comfortable…we might realise that a particular perspective, or a particular habit isn’t actually helping us very much when we consider the long term view.

As the rambler walks the same path over and over on their familiar route, their steps wear away at the surface of the trail, and eventually a furrow can form.

Deep furrows in a field that has been ploughed

We can think of our habitual thinking and behaviours as being like these furrows; when we repeatedly think or do the same things over and over, we are strengthening the neural pathways and it’s like we’re making deep grooves in our minds.

Our thoughts then naturally follow these pathways, a bit like tram following its tracks, and in doing so they become even more deeply entrenched.

It’s no wonder that we can feel as if our thoughts and behaviours are defaulting to just more of the ‘same’.

The Overgrown Trail of Change:The Challenge of New Neural Connections

I mentioned that the rambler has seen that there is a different path that they could be taking, but this path is overgrown, full of brambles and bushes.

A rambler walking along a heavily overgown path

It hasn’t been walked in a long time…if ever!

So it’s going to be difficult to navigate compared to the familiar one that they have been accustomed to walking. This overgrown path represents change.

Change is scary and change can be difficult; lots of us try to avoid it if we can because there is uncertainty and with uncertainty comes discomfort and unease.

But just as being brave enough to beat back the brambles on the new path can yield a fantastic new view from the top of the hill, being brave enough to try doing things differently, whether that’s adopting a new perspective or trying a new behaviour, can lead to an exciting new lease of life.

So trying something new, like forming a new habit or taking on a new perspective, is like taking that decisive step to clear the way in the new path.

Initially it’s going to feel really challenging but over time our brains will adjust and the new neural connections that we’re forming will strengthen – that’s like the rambler’s new path becoming clearer and clearer as they repeatedly walk it.

Walking the New Path:The Rambler's Journey into Neuroplasticity

The scientific concept behind this metaphor of the rambler is called neuroplasticity.

In the metaphor, the rambler decided to take the challenging path up the new hill and had to battle to clear the way.

And all the time that they were doing that, the original path was becoming overgrown and more difficult to walk.

Graphic representation of a brain showing lightening bolts to illustrate neural connections

This is a bit like what happens in our brains when we try new things and push ourselves out of our comfort zones.

The term Neuroplasticity just means that our brains are able to adapt and change over time rather than being ‘fixed’ – they're able to rewire themselves to make new connections in response to learning and stimulation.

We used to say that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” because of a belief that once you had matured and become set in your ways, it was impossible for the brain to continue to grow; but this concept has been proven to be incorrect.

Even in our more mature years, our brains can form new connections and strengthen the existing ones, and this comes about when we engage in new experiences and learn new things.

It’s when we stop being comfortable and we challenge ourselves, even if just a little bit, that this happens.

Hence the popularity of things like sudoko and crosswords which are promoted as “brain training” activities to help stave off cognitive degeneration.

The key thing is that repetitive activities that you are familiar with, and keep you in your comfort zone, will not help – challenging yourself every day is what will.

Clearing Brambles: Challenges in Personal Growth

Personal growth is tough; it’s impossible to achieve by always hanging out in our comfort zones.

A rambler on a steep hill looking dejected and demoralised

Going back to the metaphor, the rambler may find a fallen tree blocking the new path that they are trying to walk, or there may be points in the hill where the incline seems just too steep for them to be able to climb.

They might lack confidence to overcome these obstacles and feel demoralised; they might even feel like they want to give up and go back to the old path.

The challenges that we face in our day to day lives are like these obstacles that the rambler experiences - but it doesn’t have to be the end of the road.

Drawing on resilience, the rambler can catch their breath and muster the strength to get up the incline or over the tree.

In the same way, when we encounter challenges to forming new habits or perspectives, it’s important to draw on our resilience to keep going.

Remember, setbacks and challenges are part and parcel of life; they’re an integral part of the journey, but they are also what helps us be stronger when we come out the other side.

We learn from the experience of navigating the obstacles that life puts in front of us, and with each challenge that we address and overcome, the stronger we become and the more reinforced are the new pathways in our brains.

The Fading Old Path: Neural Adaptation in Action

A view of an overgown part of a forest with a fallen tree, which would be difficult to navigate

Above I mentioned that whilst the rambler is battling through the brambles on the new path, the old path will start to become overgrown – without regular footfalls to keep it clear nature will very soon reclaim the path and make it difficult to walk again.

A similar process happens in our brains – when we experience new things and work on developing new skills we are forging new neural pathways and the old neural pathways associated with familiar habits and behaviours start to weaken through lack of use.

With each repetition we are reinforcing the new connections, which are supporting our growth and adaptability, while the old connections wither away.

This is called neural adaptation and is a remarkable testament to the brain’s ability to adapt and change over time.

Charting Your Own Neural Course: Personal Exploration

So, just as our metaphorical rambler faces a choice between the familiar and the unknown when choosing which path to walk, we all too encounter times in our lives when we have to decide whether to stay in our comfort zones or to be willing to experience a little discomfort in the service of helping ourselves, whether that’s through adaptation to change or developing and growing new skills.

The beauty of personal exploration and growth lies in the journey itself, not necessarily in the final destination.

If we embrace the uncertainties that present themselves to us and move towards, rather than way, the challenges of life, then we allow ourselves the opportunity to chart our own neural course and shape our minds to serve us rather than hinder us.

So, take mindful steps, cultivate your resilience, celebrate your victories along the way and learn a new skill, or develop a new perspective, or face a fear had-on, to chart your own neural course and unlock the potential that lies within you.

A rambler on top of a hill admiring the view of the peak district

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