Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together

by Monica Ross

There’s a phrase that gets tossed around a lot “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” It’s known as Hebb’s Law. It’s important to the field of psychology because a lot of what we do as therapists is to get people to think in new ways. Much of the thoughts, feelings, actions that have brought our clients into therapy haven't in some way been working for them. I spoke about rumination in an earlier post. This topic falls along the same lines. When we have a thought the neurons in our brains fire. There’s a signal sent from the axon of one neuron to the dendrite of the other and in between is a space, a synaptic cleft.

Sometimes these neurons that are firing together become more closely bound because of the repeated firing--the synapses grow closer together. As a result the electrical charge doesn’t have to cross as great a distance. I guess you can kind of think of this way, as well. Let’s say you’re carving out a trail out in nature, the more you traverse the path and cut down overgrowth, the easier it is to hike through.

Our brains take the path of least resistance. That negative automatic thought or what have you, that place we always tend to go to, shows up again and again because it’s the easiest mental path to take and saves us the work of carving out a different way of thinking. It’s a matter of efficiency.

Massage and physical therapists can see this in working with the body as well. Repetitive movements shape the body. Think of the pianist whose fingers over time naturally curve because of the repetitive gesture of the posture her fingers take on the keys. Or what about the person who works at a computer all day and whose spine starts to naturally curve over time because his body develops that position when we works?

Repetitive actions shape our bodies and repetitive thoughts shape our minds. I think basically that’s what it boils down to. So how do we break these patterns? Well for the body, there are massage therapists and physical therapists and yoga teachers and a whole host of other practitioners who can help with body awareness and balance, which I do advocate and think is very important.

For the mind, I suppose us psychotherapists can offer various tools. I typically use cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR. With both of these modalities it’s an attempt to dispense of unhelpful thinking styles. Cognitive behavioral therapy offers 10 different unhelpful thinking patterns to address and work through. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to address trauma in addition to utilizing cognitive interweaves.

When I was an intern and working under my first supervisor Lisa Nanyes, she gave me an article to read by Bill O’Hanlon. Bill developed a mode of therapy called Solution Focused Brief Therapy. The article which can be found here talks about the concept of state dependent learning. Not to throw out too many new concepts at once, but state dependent learning is the idea that our memories are more easily recalled when we are in the same state of consciousness that we were in when we first formed the memory.

The article uses the example of how listening to a familiar song can bring back a memory. Also, going back to a familiar place can bring back memories. In other words our brains associate memories with sensory experiences like sight, touch, taste, sound, smell. Hanlon notes that emotions tend to work the same way in that if we are feeling depressed it is easier to recall other negative thoughts and feelings.

So part of the work of therapy is to counteract this affect by going back and forth in a way between non-depressed times and lighter topics and depressed times and more dark topics. It’s about validating the depressive episodes but not staying stuck there, not in life and not in the therapy room. Hanlon’s article goes on to offer other tools and techniques to therapists but the point being that we all can get caught in the “trance of depression” and in some sense actively “do depression.”

When I think about other ways of getting unstuck from this, I think about William Glasser and Reality Therapy and especially his focus on utilizing humor in therapy. We all know the benefits of humor as a major stress reliever--it's important in the therapy room and outside of it as well.  And so, I think part of life is looking for those moments of breaking from the traditional and of jolting ourselves out of repetitive movements and repetitive thoughts which sometimes can be brought on by being in repetitive states.