I’ve been hearing a lot recently about the idea that our minds are plastic, today it was a radio piece about how our memories have adapted with the use of modern technology so that our attention span is now less than that of a goldfish. Now that’s an interesting thought in itself, but not one for this blog and if it’s true I’ll have forgotten all about it even before I finish typing this paragraph.
So where was I, yes the plastic mind. I suppose I’ve been pondering this concept and wondering what people really mean when they describe our minds or brains as plastic. To me plastic is a hard, solid structure; the stuff that lego blocks are made of, not malleable or changeable at all. Once moulded it stays the same unless of course the dog gets hold of a piece and chews it but even then it’s misshapen but not completely altered.
I think what is meant by term plasticity of the mind is that our minds are malleable and changeable. We can relearn or learn new things and this changes how we think and feel. Nothing really needs to stay the same particularly if it’s not helping us. We can indeed change the way we think about things and about ourselves.
A technique I use with many clients really helps them to do this so here’s an example.
When she was very young Abbie was out walking with her mum and they came to a fairly wide stream that had a rotten wooden bridge across it. Abbie was running slightly ahead and her mum was worried that she’d run onto the bridge and that it would collapse and as she wasn’t yet a very strong swimmer she might be in real danger so she shouted out to Abbie that the bridge was dangerous and that it might break and that Abbie shouldn’t go on to it. Fast forward a few years and Abbie was in London crossing the Millennium Bridge and it was a fairly windy day and she could feel the bridge swaying beneath her and suddenly she found herself in the middle of a major panic attack. By major I mean cold sweats, feeling as if she was about to vomit, sitting down in the middle of the bridge and unable to move.
When Abbie came to me what she was aware of was her fear of crossing bridges particularly footbridges which was making life awkward for her. We time lined the feeling of fear that she associated with bridges back to that time with her mum that she had all but forgotten about and then applied some new learning about what the real risk had been; the rotten wood and her age. She got her adult self to pass down the knowledge that bridges themselves are not dangerous at all to her younger self but that it still important to do a quick risk assessment. We then thought about how her mother must have felt and why she shouted loudly which had frightened the young Abbie. Revisiting the event and applying new learning changed the way the Abbie felt about bridges and the following day she emailed me to let me know that she had happily crossed the Quarry footbridge and had even found herself enjoying the gentle sway.