How to re-wire your brain to fully engage with life

by Sarah on June 13, 2016

Until recently, psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists alike believed that the brain was a physiologically static organ.  That if you fried your brain on drugs (remember that PSA from the 80’s?) or didn’t get the connection needed as a child to support your development, you were stuck with limited potential.  “Good luck with that.  Here are some ways to cope,” they’d say.  But, discoveries in the last 10-15 years show that the brain can, and actually does, change.  New experiences impact both the brain’s physical structure and the way that it organizes thought, emotion and behavior.  This is the miracle of neuroplasticity.

Why is this good news?

Creating new neural pathways in the brain allows us to break out of old stuck patterns of thinking, doing, and relating.  We can build a new super highway of possibility for our experiences where we once traveled a very small stretch of road.  This provides opportunity for us to develop the “equipment” of connection that may not have been developed early in our lives; allowing us to connect with ourselves, others and all living things in a profoundly different way.

How do we change it?

The brain likes patterns and fires within known experiences.  We have to create something “new and different” to break out of the norm.  One way to reshape the neural firing patterns in the brain is to simply focus our attention.  We can re-wire our brain and create new architecture and acuity by intentional focus, attention and awareness.  It’s like exercising a muscle group in a specific way.  For instance, the more I serve a tennis ball, the more neural firing patterns I create for that action, and the more proficient I become.  Likewise, the more I place my attention on something specific (my senses, my emotions, how others are feeling, a new lifestyle behavior I want to implement, etc.), the more I’m able to connect with and experience those things, thereby creating limitless possibility and potential for the life experience available to me.

The practice of change

The process the brain undergoes is quite complex, but the practice of creating significant change is rather simple:

  1. Practice placing your attention somewhere specific by asking, “What am I noticing while I…experience conflict at work, reach for another cupcake, yell at my kids, etc.?”
  2. Create new neural networks that promote awareness. Notice what you notice.
  3. Choose to engage in a new and different way with the things you want to be present to, like your relationships and life experience.  Notice what that’s like.

A very effective exercise for building in the capacity to focus our attention is the Sensory Awareness Walk (instructions below).  I began taking these a year and a half ago when I realized that the focus of my attention was patterned to go inward.  I was acutely aware of my inner thoughts and feelings, and also very attuned to what others‘ were experiencing internally, but lacked some of the “equipment” to notice my tangible surroundings, which prevented me from connecting with and experiencing the fullness of my life.  I wanted to exercise the “muscle group” of being connected with my internal landscape while being fully present to all that was happening around me.

A walk on the greenbelt had often been a time for me to get lost in my thoughts and process my emotions.  So, as I ventured out on my first Sensory Awareness Walk I was shocked at how the woods around me came alive.  A strong fragrance caught my attention and I followed my nose to a beautiful peach-colored flower fresh in bloom.  A dead, shriveled cactus caught my eye by the unexpected way it was drooping off the side of a big rock.  I noticed a fern growing upside down out of a cave, peculiar bugs, yellowish-white bark on a tree, a butterfly, rock formations, the sounds of birds and scurrying lizards and foraging squirrels.  What I noticed more than anything was that I felt very present and fully alive.

How does a walk in the woods promote connection and new possibility?

Dr. Daniel Siegel, a leading expert in neurobiology, says, “What fires together, wires together.”  Experience creates neural firing.  New experiences, like connecting to my internal experience while focusing my attention on my external environment, created the wiring needed to apply that possibility in the realm of my relationships and daily experience of life.  As I’ve kept up the exercise of the Sensory Awareness Walk, a new way of engaging with my world has opened up for me.  I am now able to place my focus, attention and awareness in a very specific way.  The result is that I am present and connected in a way I couldn’t have been before; living fully alive in all five senses.

Try a Sensory Awareness Walk this week and leave a comment about your experience.      


• Begin by allowing your mind to focus on your breathing as you walk. Simply notice your breath. Don’t try to do anything with it. Just notice.

• Where in your body do you feel your breath? Your abdomen, chest, back, or even high in your collar bone?

• What do you notice? Is your breath smooth, rhythmic and easy? Is it hesitant, sporadic, or labored?

• What else do you notice that perhaps you haven’t noticed before?

• As you focus on your breathing, does anything change without you having to purposely try to change it?


• Shift your focus to what you see.

• What are the shapes, textures, movement, and colors that you notice?

• Can you look without naming the objects you see, even for a few seconds, but just see them as shapes, textures, movement, and colors?

• If you are in familiar territory, are there things you notice that you’ve never seen before?


• Shift your focus to what you hear.

• What sounds do you hear?

• Listen more and more deeply, what are the sounds underneath the sounds you normally hear?

• Even for a few seconds, can you hear what you hear without naming the sound?

• What are the nuances of the sounds? Are there aspects to the sounds that you never noticed before?


• Now shift your focus to what you sense in your body.

• As your body moves, what do you notice? Gently scan your body as you are moving, starting with your feet and ending at your head.

• Can you feel your muscles as they move?

• Can you feel the touch of your clothing, air, or sun on your skin?

• What can you notice that you’ve never noticed before?


• Now see if you can bring breathing, seeing, hearing, and sensing all together as you mindfully enjoy your walk.

• Don’t worry if you find yourself quickly shifting between these channels of awareness. Just keep practicing and see if you can, even for a few seconds, be aware of them all at the same time.  What do you notice that you haven’t noticed before?

Many thanks to Jim Strohecker ( ) for his original idea about the sensory awareness walk and Bobbie Burdett ( for sharing it with me.

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