Firing and Wiring


In his book, The Developing Mind, psychiatrist and UCLA professor Daniel J. Siegel gives the analogy of a hillside in the springtime filled with tall, flowing grass. Looking down from the top, you notice an idyllic little pond which you’d like to visit. You seem to be the first person to enjoy the secluded spot since there are no other observable paths. So, you begin tromping down some of that beautiful, flowing flora between you and your destination. When finished, you walk back up the hill via the same crumpled route. The next day, another hiker sees the pond and follows the route you created. More hikers appear daily taking your same route, carving a distinct, hardened path into the hillside.

Siegel observes: “Such is the case for states of mind. With repeated activation, the state of mind becomes more deeply engrained, and the state is remembered.” Expressed differently, and a bit more mnemonically, “Neurons that fire together, wire together” (known as Hebb’s axiom, named after Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb); which can paint Siegel’s analogy in rather foreboding colors (trampled beauty, and hardened bad habits).

There is another perspective, however. If “neurons that fire together,wire together” (“The more we do it, the more we want to do it!”), the opposite is also true according to the burgeoning field of neuroscience: “Neurons that fire apart, wire apart.” In other words:

“The less we do it, the less we want to do it!”

For our pesky, even destructive, obsessions (thoughts) and compulsions (behaviors), such an alternative casts “Firing and Wiring” in a whole new light.


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