The definition of neuroplasticity in Wikipedia reads as follows;
"Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is an umbrella term that encompasses both synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity—it refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury. Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how - and in which ways - the brain changes throughout life."
It would stand to reason that when we think, make decisions, take actions, etc…that something is happening in the brain when we do so.
The idea that repetitive thoughts and or actions form a kind of circuitry or path in our brains kind of makes sense. It would explain why some things that we do seem to happen “automatically”. Do the same things over and over enough times and there logically would be less conscious thought needed to embark on said activities.
In its simplest form, take an activity like brushing your teeth. When you first learned how to do it, it wasn’t “automatic” because you had never done it before. You have to learn how to take the cap off the toothpaste, squeeze some on the brush without getting it all over the place, learn the actual process of brushing, etc…. Obviously none of this is rocket science and after we learn how to do it, we don’t “think” about it while doing so.
I don’t think that it’s too much of a reach to think that the same kind of thing takes place in more complex situations.
In the arena of dependent drinking, many reasons for the repeated actions of drinking beyond normal levels are suggested ranging from it being a response or “self-medicating” solution to stress, anxiety, PTSD, depression to just doing so because it’s fun or you like the feeling.
Regardless of the reason, if you do it often enough, long enough, these neural pathways very well might begin to form so that the behavior or action begins to require less and less premeditated thought. It becomes more and more “automatic”. By the sheer repetition of having done the same thing over and over under the same circumstances, you become “wired” to do so again and again.
Is that how it happens? I don’t know but there is a certain kind of logic to it.
That being said though, would you classify this process or phenomenon as a “disease”?
Personally I would classify it more as conditioning or reinforced behavior.
It makes sense that the longer and harder that you’ve “practiced” this response, that the harder it will be to “undo” those actions and thoughts as those pathways become more ingrained and automatic.
But does that mean that you are powerless to alter those pathways? The evidence clearly shows otherwise.
People do in fact alter the way that they respond and have proven that they can overcome habitual behavior by consciously rejecting their impulsive tendencies that have been strengthened, perhaps by these neural pathways.
Is it easy? Hell no but by being aware that you are being pulled in a certain direction subconsciously you can consciously make the decision to override those directives.
By using your will and decision making abilities, you can practice and engage in different responses that will in essence, create new neural pathways.
Do the old ones disappear and how long does that take? That’s a good question and it might take longer than one would think if they even disappear at all.
That would go a long way towards explaining why people relapse so easily. If those pathways, which had been so strongly developed, are rekindled, they may be able to assert themselves again rather easily.
Maybe that’s why you hear stories of people relapsing relative easily, those pathways were well entrenched and pretty strong and why others don’t seem to have that same issue.
I don’t think most people if after having abstained for a considerable period, are going to fall right back into that “path” if they have a few drinks. But maybe, if you start up again, after a while those old pathways start to build up steam and if you aren’t paying attention or respect its potential, then trouble might come your way.
I know that I don’t know but it’s a pretty compelling theory.
What I do know is that I’m not completely at the mercy of these neural pathways, that I do have a say in “which path I follow”!