Walking Through a Meadow

Have you ever walked through a meadow in the high Sierra? They look beautiful, are filled with flowers, green, and lush. While they are beautiful to look at, they are actually quite challenging to walk through (and they tend to be filled with mosquitos). The grass is tall, they are criss-crossed by small streams and muddy areas, and moving through them is challenging.

In a similar vein, I recently got back from a ski trip. Once, at the top, we hiked along a ridge to get to a bowl we were particularly interested in. While the snow looks beautiful, it is deep and thick and walking through it is challenging. However, the second time we traversed the ridge was easier than the first, because the trail we followed was much more established later in the day.

In both cases, following a path is substantially easier than breaking trail. Whether it is a path through a meadow, or a boot trail through the snow, it is easier to walk when the path has already been walked. In fact, the more times the path has been walked, the more obvious the trail is, and the easier the traverse. Following a path that has been walked 100 times is much easier than walking a path that has only been walked 10 times.

Although Robert Frost would have us believe that the road not taken is always preferred, often times, the road more traveled is ok. It is our tendency, as humans, to follow the easiest path– and frequently, this works pretty well for us. For example, we probably know the easiest way to the grocery store, considering the traffic light, traffic etc., and we routinely take that road because… we have, through trial and error, figured out the best route. But it also creates a challenge. Suppose that we come to a meadow, and we know that the path we have traveled before, the well-worn path, is not the right one? Our brain instinctively tells us to follow the path.

Now imagine that the meadow, or the snowfield, represents adversity, or distress, or a challenge. And imagine that the path through it that we know, that we have laid down and created, is a maladaptive strategy. For me in clinic, I think about this most often as addiction, but it could be anything– eating chips in response to stress, avoiding problems instead of facing them, or talking instead of listening. We all have our preferred ways of responding to difficulty. If the last 1,000 times we have responded to a given situation a certain way, the odds are that on the 1,001st time we encounter that situation, we will respond to it the same way again.

We know, intellectually, that we do not want to follow the known, easy path through it; at the same time, walking a new path is difficult. It feels unnatural. It is unfamiliar. It is substantially more effort. And yet, if we make the conscious effort to walk a new path, we can usually find a way through.

But the next time we arrive at the meadow, or the snowfield, we are again confronted with a choice. The new path, the unfamiliar one, is still faintly visible. The traces of our previous footsteps are there, even if they are not easy to see. The old path, by contrast, continues to beckon. Its way remains well-worn and clear. When we are trying to make change, we must again choose the new, more difficult path. And again, the new path is more difficult than the old one.

The more times we choose the new path, the more established it becomes. The more we follow the alternative track, the easier that track becomes to see, and to follow. Better yet, if we do not continue to follow the old track, the grass in the meadow starts to grow back, the streams return, and over time, that old path gets harder to see. The old path through the snow gets blown over, and filled in.

This metaphor is helpful as we think about adopting different coping styles and ways of solving challenges. It is also an excellent metaphor for how the neural networks in our brain actually function. When we do perform actions, or interact with the world in a particular way, groups of neurons are firing in coordination in our brain. Getting a specific group to fire in a specific way takes repetition, but the more repetition happens, the easier it is to cause that group of neurons to fire in the first place.

Once a particular group of neurons has learned to fire together, it never really stops knowing– but it can become less pronounced, or harder to access. This is one of the reasons that people who have had a substance use disorder always remain at risk for relapse and substance abuse– the group of neurons that has learned “take chemical, feel better” never really forgets. That pathway is there permanently.

When we think about changing behaviors, particularly entrenched behaviors, it is helpful to carry this perspective. Every time we come to the snowfield, we have to choose which path to take. Moreover, just because we have taken the new path many times does not mean that the old path has disappeared. It also helps us understand why behaviors get easier with repetition. The more that path is established, the more engrained that neural circuit becomes, the more reflexive and automatic it is. The newer the path is, the less established the neural circuit is, the more effort it is to travel.

New things feel hard because they are new– but they get easier. And when the pathways we have established serve us well, its ok to just keep walking the way we did last time.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *