The limbic system vs. the prefontal cortex

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Some people are just too set in their ways to be able to make permanent changes.”

“I feel like I am stuck in a rut.”

The above statements reflect a potential downside to neuroplasticity in our lives. While the brain’s plasticity is responsible for our capacity to learn new skills, it is also involved in the refinement of learned abilities, and eventual automatic performance of routine tasks based on our mastery of simple skills. This means that precious computational energy is reserved for tasks of greater importance (for survival, etc.) which are processed by the prefontal cortex. The prefontal cortex is responsible for what’s often called “higher thinking” and planning in the “conscious mind.”

Tasks that are routine and rote can mostly be done without intervention from the prefontal cortex, and instead are relegated to the autonomic nervous system, which are governed by a more “unconscious mind.” This type of activity is modulated by the limbic system, and involves things you do almost automatically without thinking. Such things may include the tying of your shoelaces, signing a document, or crossing your arms in front of your chest. Interestingly, breathing is a unique exception to this dichotomy of action, because it operates under both centers (conscious and unconscious), depending on whether or not the act of breathing is consciously controlled, or allowed to operate automatically. This holds in interesting key to the concept of mind over matter, and access to the unconscious mind through advanced breathing exercises, such as holotropic breathing or pranayama meditation.

We can see that making conscious changes can have a positive impact in our lives, but we often find it challenging to follow through. This, too, is partially related to brain plasticity; although we are capable of tremendous change, it is only activated when the conscious mind wills the change more forcefully and incessantly than the signals of habituated routine which come from the unconscious mind.

Essentially we must overpower our old programming code (habitual behavior) with a more powerful new code (forming new positive habits, picking up new hobbies). In order to be successful, that code must be repeatedly encoded before it can stick permanently, especially if it is being rewritten over a behavior code which is as old as the person exhibiting the behavior. To grasp the difficulty, one need only try to relearn a new way to do something which they’ve done one specific way all through life. How one crosses their arms in front of their chest is a great example of this challenge.