Empowerment & Seeking

Create Successful Systems with Neuroscience and Cats

There are hundreds of tools, tips and techniques to succeed in your goals and reach your potential… I’d even recommend some of them, but one thing I have learned is that alone, no single tool will meet every requirement of each situation.

But having a system in place can make things that bit easier…

Case in point…

I hiss at my cats.

When we were planning pet adoption, I researched a little bit how best to train animals, since language and that whole ‘other species’ thing is kind of a barrier.

One recurring theme in the books and videos was that cats are innately wary of hissing noises. Theories link this to snakes, which makes sense, since you kind of want to back off if a snake is nearby, and you’re a fluffy cat.

Our Munchkins: The Cats

When we adopted our little munchkins, Smoke and Ember, they were 18 months old. They’d lived with their mother, and a forth cat alongside their human owners. They had different names, and were specifically introduced to us as nervous cats with one of those lovely “will need patience” labels the rescue places often use.

It took a good few weeks to get them to come out of the ‘cat room’ we created for them, and even 12 months down the line, Ember still freaked out at strangers/new noises way more than she should.

But once they’d settled in with us, we began training them with a low, soft ssssssss responding to any behaviour we were aiming to discourage.

Only twice have they ever been scared by the hiss, which have been used in a loud, sharp manner only when they have caused physical harm. Normally, it’s a low warning hiss, and both cats do that slow turn to look at me, as if to say: “Hey, I’m on the table, oh you’re doing that hiss, really, can I be bothered to take you seriously… one more step… okay the hiss is getting louder and longer… I don’t like it, I’ll get down and sit on the carpet like I was always planning to do that.”

Kids, eh?

This is our current behavioural training technique, and it works 9/10 times. Which, having worked in social care, I’m aware is pretty good odds for any behavioural technique!

Why Does This Matter?

Because back in 2012, I worked in a nursery. And I tried to teach myself not to swear. I had moments of winning. And moments of failing. I felt guilty. I felt like a failure. All the usual, standard goal-setting stuff we humans tend to respond with when things don’t quite go our way.

About a month ago, I picked up a plate that was too hot, in someone else’s home. And I hissed.
I instantly felt guilty that I may have scared the cats, only to realise they were 50 miles away, back home.

It appears, I have created a system.

The Theory

Behavioural Psychology has known for decades about pairing things to create a rule or system the body follows subconsciously. For example, training a dog to salivate when it hears a bell.

But the key concept in habit formation and learning is a phrase that was practically breathed throughout my Master of Science:

“Cells that fire together, wire together.”

I practically dreamt that phrase the year I completed my Neuroscience degree.

In general terms, that means that actions, behaviours, thoughts and experiences which occur together build their own connections. Thus, building a system of those web connection involves completing the same two actions together, regularly. In my case, I basically hiss whenever I would normally be primed to shout or swear.

It’s a conscious decision around my cats, unless I’m being mauled (seriously, that only happened once) but those behaviours have ‘fired together’ regularly for two years, and I haven’t really hissed outside of that scenario.

Consider Your Own System

What creating a habit or crafting our map forward, it’s important to consider the whole system of our actions, situation or experience.

  • What environmental cues are you experiencing while trying to change your habit?
  • Is there a specific sound or movement you could save for ONLY using with that habit?
  • How can you use other, already-formed habits to ‘scaffold’ a new idea onto?

Again, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to creating a system that supports you, but there’s always a combination that will work for each of us, at least most of the time.

We just have to craft it mindfully.

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