A question we must ask ourselves as coaches/clinicians is are we truly teaching a new skill versus further engraining a conditioned response that has been adapted for survival? Without a knowledge of what we’re actually affecting, improvements are more random and less reproducible. So here’s a brief discourse on conditioning and how attention is a valuable resource in altering habits.
But first, a quick definition: Learning as I’m operationalizing it here, is the state in which novel skills or neural patterns are developed. Novel learning requires prefrontal cortex activity, attention (mediated thru the nucleus basalis), and mild transient stress to capture the pathways. As I’ve stated previously, mild stress/arousal is necessary for a baseline of attention but needs to come from a place of underlying security to allow errors to occur without threat that sends the nervous system into freakout and repeating conditioned responses.
So when we are working on changing a movement pattern, or changing perceptions, we need to be acutely aware of one’s current state. Are we teaching a new skill or are we further engraining a habit? My position is that those who are locked in a neurologic state of being — as measured by loss of HRV, loss of triplanar movement, persistent apical breathing, or whatever measures you use — are likely to further engrain their conditioned responses rather than novel learning unless we give them a reason not to. This is because we do what we know, particularly when under duress. We have to be given a reason to produce a different output.
It should be mentioned that I don’t think conditioned patterns (aka habits) are inherently “bad”. Like everything in life, it is context that gives them value. Conditioned patterns provide efficiency in neural processing. Patterns are what allow high-level performers to function in flow states and for Average Joes to streamline their morning routines and drive to work whilst thinking about their day.
In an example of stress and survival, someone under acute duress will typically hyperinflate and extend the spine in an attempt to improve oxygenation – this is an adaptive response to modify respiration in a sympathetic state. This is a good thing and highly effective to maintain survival for the organism but may make us more rigid when stressors are no longer present. From Stress Signaling Pathways That Impair Prefrontal Cortex Structure and Function:
high levels of dopamine release in corticobasal ganglia circuits during stress serve to capture whatever successful behaviour has just rescued subjects from danger and engrain this pattern as a habit. But this same evolutionary solution could make humans vulnerable to maladaptive behaviours
The Plastic Paradox
The same neuroplastic properties that allow us to change our brains and produce more flexible behavior can also allow us to produce more rigid ones
So, first we calm them through parasympathetics which we’ve discussed at length on this here blog, then we redirect.
Attention and Redirection
So, HOW do you redirect attention? That depends on the individual and their particular conditioned response. Sounds like a cop-out I know but n=1, bro. Respiration, interoception, therapeutic neuroscience education, altering sensory stimuli (visual, auditory, and stomatognathic have a lot of receptors devoted to them if you’re looking for a place to start). This will probably require several future posts so stay tuned.
I am big fan of internal cues, particularly early in this process of novel learning, and my friend Dr. Aaron Swanson has a fantastic piece on it that brings the information in this post full circle. James Clear also has an interesting post on habit stacking – a technique I use often in those with persistent pain or fatigue syndromes in order to change the nervous system’s appraisal of threat.
Ultimately, an awareness of the difference between novel learning and conditioning of a previously learned response is critical because when we allow a previously facilitated behavioral output to persist, we are only serving to perpetuate that response – context will provide whether or not that’s valuable for the client’s goals.