The plastic paradox of the brain is the reason why people give up too early in any process of change. Not being familiar with the way the brain changes, they are discouraged by little or no progress. Seemingly having to fight an uphill battle with no end in sight, they surrender prematurely. Therefore, in order not to be defeated by insufficient knowledge of the involved process, let us explore this particular principle of change in greater detail.
The plastic paradox refers to the apparently contradicting effects of plasticity: On the one hand, the plasticity of the brain enables us to create new pattern of behavior until old age. But on the other hand, the same plasticity makes the brain rigid, resisting change and holding on to old habits.
You have to image the brain as a faithful servant. In principle, it serves us well and has only our well being in mind. But as any servant who has been in service for a long time, the brain thinks it knows us better than we know ourselves. It is not easily convinced if one day, out of the blue, we decide to take up a new habit, say change to vegan food. “We’d better stay with steak and pork roast. He does not know what’s good for him. That it is probably another folly. It will pass,” thinks your own personal Jeeves and resists the change.
Therefore, our job is to regain the upper hand again and straighten out who serves whom. Other than the fictional Jeeves, your brain is prepared to learn and change over time, albeit reluctantly. It usually gives in when it repetitively receives ‘commands’ from us over a considerable period of time. In other words, we have to make use of repetition to win over our brain.
Winning the uphill battle of change
“Know your enemy,” advises Sun Tzu in The Art of War. The ‘enemy’ in our case is the reluctance of the brain to change. You have to know that the brain will resist any attempt to implement a new behavior – as explained above. And you have to know that you must be persistent at the beginning to overcome resistance, despite the appearance that you are not making any progress.
But there will be a moment when the new ‘behavior-to-be’ bec0mes a power of its own right. After having been repeated some times, the new implemented habit demands to be repeated for its own sake. That is the moment when the uphill battle is over. Now the new habit is working in your favor. While at the beginning you have to push-start it to get it on its way, later on you will be pulled to pursue it by its own power.
Example: Learning to meditate
Trying to learn to meditate is a good example to exemplify the plastic paradox: At the beginning meditation can be a demanding task. Too many thoughts distract us, stories of minor importance captivate us and frustrate any success. We want to give up. But knowing that these problems are part of the process is already half the battle. We know if we go on, it will be easier. And after a while, the meditation becomes more satisfying. Thoughts subside with more ease and the mind stays calm for an enduring period of time.
That is the turning point. Now your meditation becomes more and more attractive to you. You enjoy that new serene state of mind and the peaceful and relaxed way you start your day. The new habit has gained momentum and an attractiveness of its own. You have implemented an new behavior and meditate for the love of it.