The reason not all law students and lawyers are paralyzed with stress-induced brain damage is because our brains are resilient. They bounce back. They successfully resist or unlearn stress conditioning.
Stress is profession-wide, but adaptation to stressful experience, including resistance and recovery, is individual by individual. As Prof. Austin explains in Killing Them Softly:
The brains of all healthy law students are comprised of the triune structure: the primitive, emotional, and thinking brains. The critical unit of communication within each brain is the tree-shaped neuron, which relies on the electrochemical process of transmitting information through the brain and between brain and body. Every law student has a multitude of neuronal networks operating within the brain. But each student’s transit system map of neuron data pathways, referred to as the connectome, is unique.
“You are your synapses,” and your brain is a “work in progress” because your connectome is continuously rewiring itself. The brain is in a constant state of change. It has the capacity to produce new neurons in the hippocampus and the olefactory bulbs (parts of the emotional brain) in a process called neurogenesis. The modification of neural networks in response to experience, such as legal education, is neuroplasticity.
Linda Graham’s book Bouncing Back describes neuroplasticity this way:
Technically, neuroplasticity is the lifelong capacity of the brain to create new neurons (brain cells) and connections among neurons (neural pathways and circuits). . . . When you focus attention on the conditioned pattern you want to rewire, you activate the neural networks of that pattern and cause the neurons to fire again. When you know how to harness the neuroplasticity of your brain in that moment, you can alter the pattern.
In other words, neuroplasticity isn’t just something that happens in the normal course of life inside our skulls, it’s also a skill we can consciously practice to our advantage. As Prof. Austin points out, “The brains of law students and lawyers are continuously being rewired and everything they do, think, and feel is governed by their neural networks.” We can either allow this to happen without our conscious intent, and leave the prospect of suffering brain damage and recovering from it up to chance, or we can engage in the intentional “neural self-hacking” Prof. Austin advocates — a term taken from “a class taught at Google, [that] teaches employees about the power of neuroplasticity.”
Using neuroplasticity to our benefit is a skill we can either use or lose. As Prof. Austin says,
The brain has the power to change itself through the personal effort and choices of its owner. Brain plasticity is competitive; we keep the skills we practice and we lose the ones we do not.
Embracing this skill requires focus and perseverance. As Bouncing Back says:
All mental activity creates neural structure. Using neuroplasticity to strengthen brain structures is like working out at the gym to build up our muscles. (Of course, the structures of the brain aren’t actually muscles; they’re densely networked circuits and pathways of neurons. But strengthening the capacities of these neurons to communicate with one another, and to integrate the information being processed into new responses, is comparable to working out to strengthen our muscles.)
Perseverance in our efforts to harness neuroplasticity is the sine qua non of rewiring our brains. By persevering in the use of new tools and techniques, we are stabilizing the new neural circuitry so that it can serve as a reliable platform of resilient behavior, not easily overridden by the pulls of the past. . . .
Frequent and regular repetition creates steady neural firing and rewiring and accelerates the process. . . . [A] stance of willingness — focusing on possibilities — is more effective than a stance of willpower — focusing on performance. It almost doesn’t matter how small the increment of change is.
What’s important is that we choose practices that catalyze positive change and that we persevere.
We’ll look at one of those catalytic practices next time.