Provision #749: Repetition Rewires the Brain

Laser Provision

There was a time when I thought coaching was just about learning. Now I realize that it is also about unlearning. Learning and unlearning are two different, albeit related, processes. To unlearn things we have to grieve the loss of old familiar patterns and enjoy the discovery of new ones. To make those new patterns stick, we have to repeat them on a daily basis for at least six months. Such repetition literally rewires the brain. Until that happens, however, there is constant risk of relapse. That’s why people benefit greatly from developing rewarding relationships with those who model and support our learning goals. Coaching is one such relationship, but there are many others. Do you want to change for good? This Provision sketches out the route.

LifeTrek Provision

When people contact us for coaching, they usually show up with a behavior-change agenda. They either want to stop doing something they are in the habit of doing or they want to start doing something they are not in the habit of doing. That makes coaching a personalized system for unlearning and learning.

It’s personalized because the process takes place in the context of a one-on-one relationship. The latest acronym for that process is RBDP: Relationship-Based Professional Development. People are neither figuring it out for themselves nor in groups. They are in an individualized relationship focused on personal and professional growth.

It’s a system because coaching, at its best, employs evidence-based practices. Coaches are not just shooting from the hip; we are reflective practitioners who have systematically developed mental models for initiating and facilitating those growth-fostering relationships. What do we do first? How do we get started? What kinds of questions do we ask? When do we give advice? How do we generate new ideas? How do we handle resistance? What will enable people to not only achieve their behavior-change goals, but to be transformed in the process?

Such concerns indicate that coaching is not just a learning system; it is also an unlearning system. Those two processes, learning and unlearning, are not one and the same. Great coaches know how to work with both dynamics in order to better facilitate the behavior-change process. That’s where the growing body of brain research really comes into play, since the evidence points in some clear directions that coaches would do well to know about.


The things we do repeatedly wire our brains in such a way as to maintain those behaviors without our having to think about them. That is what neuroscientists refer to as neuroplasticity, the adaptive nature of the brain to change itself. Plasticity is what enables the brain to convert repeated behaviors into self-sustaining habits. And that’s a good thing when it comes to something desirable. If we had to think long and hard about brushing our teeth, for example, each and every day, weighing the pros and cons and working up the nerve to do the deed, life would be a very tedious proposition indeed. Better to just set it and forget it with the help of those neural pathways and glial structures that I have been writing about for the past couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, the brain works the same way when it comes to something undesirable. When we smoke cigarettes, bite our fingernails, take drugs, or overeat, to mention only four common habits that people often think of as undesirable, our brains wire themselves to maintain those behaviors as well. To change those behaviors, then, we have to weaken the neuronal and chemical links that maintain them. And that’s not easy, which is why the pharmaceutical industry has become a $1 trillion USD per year enterprise. People are looking, at times desperately, for the magic bullet that can help us stop our addictive, obsessive, compulsive, hyperactive, and other undesirable behaviors.

As everyone knows, however, there is no magic bullet. Even when drugs get prescribed, it still takes desire, work, and time to unlearn a behavior. The brain doesn’t give up those connections easily. In his excellent book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge writes about this phenomenon:

“Competitive plasticity also explains why our bad habits are so difficult to break or ‘unlearn.’ Most of us think of the brain as a container and learning as putting something in it. When we try to break a bad habit, we think the solution is to put something new into the container. But when we learn a bad habit, it takes over a brain map, and each time we repeat it, it claims more control of that map and prevents the use of that space for ‘good’ habits. That is why ‘unlearning’ is often a lot harder than learning, and why early childhood education is so important•it’s best to get it right early, before the ‘bad habit’ gets a competitive advantage.”

Doidge also notes:

“The science of unlearning is a very new one. Because plasticity is competitive, when a person develops a neural network, it becomes efficient and self-sustaining and, like a habit, hard to unlearn. Different chemistries are involved in learning than in unlearning. When we learn something new, neurons fire together and wire together, and a chemical process occurs at the neuronal level called ‘long-term potentiation,’ or LTP, which strengthens the connections between neurons.”

“When the brain unlearns associations and disconnects neurons, another chemical process occurs, called ‘long-term depression, or LTD (which has nothing to do with a depressed mood state). Unlearning and weakening connections between neurons is just as plastic a process, and just as important, as learning and strengthening them. If we only strengthened connections, our neuronal networks would get saturated. Evidence suggests that unlearning existing memories (and loosening existing connections) is necessary to make room for new memories (and connections) in our networks.”

So what’s the secret to unlearning? Grief and Pleasure. For the brain to let go of its existing maps, which have become so easy to navigate that we can trace them in our sleep, there has to be a strong inducement and a period of mourning. Willpower alone is not sufficient, and may even be counterproductive (since it tends to focus our attention on the problem, the undesirable way the brain is wired and firing). For the brain to unlearn something it has to be seduced by dopamine and other neurohormones released by the Limbic System in response to pleasurable activities. These are the chemicals that can induce the brain to release existing connections and let go of existing maps.

The brain also has to grieve. Even when we know there is something we want to give up, and even when we have tasted the pleasure that comes from something better, it is still painful to unwire those connections and still unnerving (literally) to ignore those maps. “We grieve,” Doidge writes, “by calling up one memory at a time, reliving it, and then letting it go. At a brain level we are turning on each of the neural networks that were wired together, experiencing the memory with exceptional vividness, then saying goodbye, one network at a time.”


When it comes to learning, then, Alan Deutschman had it right in his 2007 book, Change or Die. The three Fs, facts, fear, and force, do not induce pleasure and do not permit grief. Persuasion and intimidation make the brain dig in its heels or run away, not open up and learn new things. Parents know exactly how this works if we have ever tried to make our children do things for their own good. The best arguments in the world, combined with coercive authority, cannot make a child learn to play the piano, speak a foreign language, or solve a math problem. And that’s without even having to unlearn anything!

The three Fs become even more ineffective when we are trying to replace old bad habits with new good habits. The more reasons we give and the more force we apply the more resistance we generate and the more stuck people feel. Deutschman therefore replaces the three Fs with the three Rs: relationships, repetition, and reframing.

If you want to learn something, start relating to people you enjoy being with who can serve as role models, coaches, and friends through the learning process. This is ancient wisdom, but we too often forget the message:

  • “Be careful the company you keep.”
  • “We shape our environments and they, in turn, shape us.”
  • “Choose your friends wisely for they shall determine the way you go.”

The people we want to hang out with, according to Deutschman, are the people who inspire us to be our very best, who believe in us, who walk the talk, and who make learning fun. But that’s only part of the equation. If we want to rewire our brains with new connections, then we have to keep going back to those people, over and over again, repeating the new behaviors and understandings that they have to teach us. Repetition, both actual and imagined, is the key to brain plasticity. Given enough time, with enough repetition, anyone can learn anything.

That’s why it’s so important to find people who fill us with hope and love. To repeat new behaviors and thought patterns is not easy. The transition through unlearning and learning, through grief and pleasure, is fraught with powerful emotions that can easily sidetrack behavior change. It takes at least six months for new brain maps to be drawn and the process is never over. Brain plasticity, as neuroscientists have now demonstrated, is lifelong. What’s here today will be gone tomorrow unless we keep using it. “Neurons that fire together wire together,” is a description of what happens through the learning process. Do it once and we get a spark. Do it for six months or more and we get wired.

Coaches are in learning relationships with our clients. We seek to model, encourage, engage, support, and challenge our clients as old behaviors loosen and new behaviors develop. Coaching conversations are themselves part of the process. The brain fires the same way when it thinks about doing something as when it is actually doing something. Mirror neurons are part of the morphology, but it goes even deeper than that. The more specifically we imagine new behaviors the more likely we are to involve the whole distributed brain in the learning process: mind, heart, and body.

That’s why coaching involves so much mental rehearsal. What do you want to do? How do you want to do it? What would it look like? Can you imagine yourself doing it right now? Let’s close our eyes and see what happens. Athletes have been using that technique since the beginning of time. We don’t just do physical training, we also do mental training. We picture the event and what it will be like, step by step, to be successful. The more specific our visualization the more power it has to shape our brain structures.

I was struck by the story in Doidge’s book of Anatoly Sharansky, who spent nine years in a Soviet prison, including 400 days in solitary confinement in freezing, darkened five-by-six punishment cells. Instead of falling apart, Sharansky kept himself together by exercising his mind. He played mental chess with himself for months on end, playing both white and black, holding the game in his head, from opposite perspectives • a truly remarkable feat. After his release, Sharansky became a cabinet minister in Israel. When the world champion Garry Kasparov played against the prime minister and leaders of the cabinet, he beat all of them except Sharansky.

Repetition will do that. It can literally rewire the brain. But those first six months are hard. That’s why it’s important to have relationships that keep us in the game, reframing setbacks as learning opportunities. There is no linear path to unlearning and learning. it is a circuitous route involving the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. I know that from personal experience. I have dealt successfully, for example, with the challenges of both overeating and taking habit-forming prescription drugs. But through the transitions there were times of tremendous grief and pleasure that only relationships, repetition, and reframing could see me through.

May it be that way for you as well. May you grieve the loss of old patterns and enjoy the development of new patterns on the way to your best life.

Coaching Inquiries: What habits are you trying to change? What losses do you want to grieve? What pleasures do you want to enjoy? What is one new behavior that you would like to repeat? Who could inspire and stand by you through the process? Who are your role models and coaches? How could you start spending more time with them on a regular basis?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Thank you for another fascinating issue of LifeTrek Provisions, “It’s Not All In Our Heads.” As a former massage and body worker, trained in Asian disciplines, I never cease to be intrigued about the magical wonders of human behavior, what manifests in our physical bodies and how we can heal physically, emotionally and spiritually. As a more Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) oriented practitioner, I share the believe that the heart is truly the transformer in our bodies. In terms of brain, Asians will always talk about the two brains, which later in 1996 Dr. Michael D. Gershon, the author of The Second Brain and the chairman of the department of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia, expanded upon. The brain and the colon connection.

By now we know that each cell has its own capacity to produce neurotransmitters or what Candice Perth, author of Molecules of Emotion, calls “information messengers.” Her book is another good source, illustrating that each emotion has its own amino acid strand and if we look at the function of the colon, e.g. small intestines are responsible for the quality of the blood (you are what you eat) while the large intestines represent our second brain (around the ‘hara’ or belly button, the seat of we call our ‘intuition’) manifested in our language: ” I have this gut feeling•”.

In any case, TCM is my world because there is no organ that is ‘outranking’ the other:) It is about well balanced team work of all organs, if there is excess activity in one area, then there is deficiency somewhere else and, often, it manifests in a physical symptom that is not necessarily the source. This outlook on body work serves me well in the educational world. 🙂 In any case, just wanted to mention these two books and can’t wait to read your next edition! 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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