Intensity & Repetition: Zebras & Giraffes

Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together & Use it or lose it!

In this video, I'll be using a story to explain the process of neurological change. There are biological changes that take place in the brain and central nervous system when we make a major life change. It's highly recommended that if you have not already done so, watch the videos on neuroplasticity neural networks and mental filters. If you get nothing more from those videos, there are four mechanisms to keep in mind about neurological change.

Number one, neurons that fire together, wire together. Number two, use it or lose it. And number three (and four), in order to encode a neural network in the brain, it takes intensity and repetition.

Let me give you an example of how we go about changing our love map or other complex neural circuitry that we've been living with intensity and repetition over and over again for years, if not decades. So I call this one Zebras and Giraffes.

This is a ficticious story about a woman who comes to counseling. She's alcoholic. She's 45 years old. Her third husband just left her. She lives in a small town, and she reaches out to the counselor there.

The counselor is not sure he's going to be able to help her because they have a history together. She's been into counseling for a couple of different episodes of her alcoholism. Nothing's ever gotten her attention well enough to make the changes that she needs to make. This time was different, though, and she told him that.

She said, “I can't take it anymore. I can't continue on the way I'm going. I can't get a job. I'm going to lose my car. I don't have any support left. I've burned all my bridges. You've got to help me.” So the Councilor says, “Okay, we'll give it another try, but you have to make this agreement.” She said, “What's that?” He said, “You must to go down to the AA meeting down the street three times a week and come see me once a week.”

She says, “Oh no, you don't understand. I don't do groups like that.” And he says, “Yes, I do understand. And I know you don't do groups like that, but if I'm going to help you, we need the support of those people down there who've walked the walk and have been there and done that.” So she agrees to go even though she doesn't feel like she belongs in one of those meetings.

When she walks in the door, she finds out she was absolutely 100% correct. She doesn't belong there! She's like a zebra walking into a room full of giraffes. That's because she's been hanging out at the bar at the other end of the street for decades. That's where all the other zebras hang out. Everybody knows her name there, and she knows them.

They all have mental filters that are set up to support their ability to keep drinking, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that says it's not good for you. Now she walks into this room full of giraffes. These are the people who have mental filters that are set up for sobriety, talking about how wonderful it is to be able to get through the day without a drink or to get through the day not even have a thought of a drink. She can't understand how that makes them happy. But she keeps going anyway because she promised that she would.

So she keeps going for three weeks and nothing really happens. And she does notice, though, that this woman across the table from her used to be a zebra. Now she's a giraffe that got her curiosity going. Then she heard other people there that sound like they used to be zebras, and now they're giraffes. How did that happen?If it happened for them, maybe it can happen for me. So she keeps going.

Then one day the bank calls. They're coming to get her car. She hasn't been able to get a job to keep the payments up. She lives in a small town and everyone knows her reputation, so she's become unemployable. She's burned all the bridges with friends and family, and nobody will give her a loan or help her out. Now they're going to come and get her car, and she won't have a way to get around or a way to even get to these meetings or the counselor's office. So she's having a very bad day.

She walks into the room at her AA meeting and sits down at the table and everyone's in there giggling and laughing and having a good time. And it's starting to really irritate her because things are only getting worse. So eventually she just slams her coffee cup down on the table and says, “I don't understand you people." How do you keep so happy in the midst of all this?”

They asked her what was going on, and she told them the bank is coming to get her car. She doesn't even know how she's going to be able to get there. Nobody's going to be there for her. She doesn't have any friends. And on and on. Then she heard someone giggling in the back of the room! This was really offensive to her. So she turned around and that person says, “Oh, don't mind me. No offense. I'm not laughing at you. I'm laughing at me. I've been where you are. I know exactly how you feel, and so do most of the other people in this room.”

She asked them, “What do you mean, you know?”The person replied, “Well, we've been there and done that.” So she says, “Yeah, but I've been coming here for almost three months now. Nothing's changed!”

They told her that's why some people there were giggling. “Because you can't just come and sit at the meeting and hope to get quality sobriety. It's a program of action. You have to take what you hear here and use it, apply it in your life out there to see what recovery skills and tools will work for you.”

She says, “Oh, great. So what tool do you think is going to help me in my situation? When they come and get my car tomorrow, what do I do?” They said, “Well, you've done everything you can do. It doesn't sound like there's anything else you can do. So in that case, we suggest using the tool of letting it go and turning it over to your higher power. It's no longer your problem. It's His problem.”

She doesn't see how that's going to work, but she has no other choice. She goes home, gets down on her knees before bed. She tells God everything that's been going on. She says, “They told me at that meeting I need to come and give this to you. I know that I'm a burden and I don't want to be that for you, but I don't know what else to do. So I'm doing what they told me.” Then she crawled up in the bed, went to sleep, and had the best night's sleep ever. She got up the next day feeling refreshed and invigorated and strangely happy.

Even though they were coming to get her car today. She cleaned the house and ate breakfast and went out to get the mail. And when she opened the mailbox, she found something that was quite surprising to her. Oh boy. It was a letter from the IRS. She opened it and began to read it said that we've been auditing your tax returns and found that we've made a mistake and that you have a refund coming. So they included the check. She was stunned to find out the check was for the exact amount that would pay off the three months of back payments and three months ahead on her car! Needless to say, it was such a intense experience for her, that the intensity of it burned a neural network into her brain instantly that says, ‘Wow, this turning it over and letting it go really works.’ She was so excited when she returned for her next AA meeting, she told them all about it.

They giggled and laughed and had a good time and talked about how wonderful recovery is. From that point on, she did everything they told her. She gathered more tools and tried them out and found several that worked really well for her. She couldn't get enough AA. After that, she didn't have to go anymore. She just wanted to go. She had become a giraffe. Then one day in walks another zebra.

This story is a good example of how to make changes in your neural circuitry, especially if you're dealing with a very complex and sophisticated issue. This lady had decades long alcoholism and failure after failure in her marriages.

She's had a lot of intensity and repetition that built a very sophisticated network to support her ability to continue drinking. She went to her AA meeting and felt totally out of sorts because she was she did not have a neural network for that. She did not have any experience to create any neural circuitry for recovery, but as she stayed there, things began to happen, especially when she started taking action. Because when you take action, you find out if something works. When it works, then you have an intense reaction and that starts connecting neural circuits together.

People often ask me, how long do I need to keep going to those meetings or how long do I need to keep going to therapy? I tell them only until you want to, then you'll never have to again. Thanks for watching this video. I hope it's been helpful.

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Don Carter MSW, LCSW