Neuroscience Meets Affirmation Practice: Do Affirmations Rewire Your Brain?

a picture of a person's brain with the neural pathways highlighted, showing the connections being made as they repeat affirmations

Have you ever wondered whether it’s really worth saying your affirmations again and again? You might start to think that once or twice might be plenty. But if you knew that those affirmations were changing your brain — rewiring it, per se — that would revive your motivation.

Do affirmations rewire your brain? Yes, repeated affirmations build strong neural connections. As a result, you become the master of those thoughts. That’s what we’re referring to when we say that affirmations “rewire” our brains.

Neurons Are the Brain’s Wiring

We like to talk about rewriting our brains. It’s worth acknowledging, though, that that’s just a metaphor. There aren’t actual wires in your brain. You’re not an android.

What your brain does have are neurons. Those neurons work by making connections with other neurons. They transmit electrical signals along neural pathways.

Now, no one really knows exactly how they work. Scientists can ask people questions, listen to the responses, and see what’s happening in the brain in terms of electrical activity. That process gives them an idea of which parts of the brain are experiencing activity. But getting any more granular than that is really difficult, at least with our current technology.

With all that said, the basic understanding of how neurons work is that they connect together to perform on-off functions that do everything from controlling our muscles to creating complex thoughts.

It’s like how computer programs use zeros and ones to create all kinds of crazy stuff with increasing levels of complexity. Those little zeros and ones are the basis for elaborate mathematical computations. They turn into something as involved as Call of Duty.

So, no, you don’t have real wires in your brain. You actually have something much more impressive: an intricate network of neurons.

Do Affirmations Rewire Your Brain? Sure, Everything Makes Neural Connections

When you’re asking, “Do affirmations rewire the brain?” the immediate answer is “Of course!” That’s because everything rewires the brain. Whenever learning takes place, you’re building neural connections.

do affirmations rewire your brain neurons firing - red and orange

Let’s take a simplified look at what’s involved. When you’re learning a new skill, some neurons start reaching toward each other. As you get better and better at the skill and become more capable, those neurons connect together.

The connection grows tighter and tighter over time. More and more neurons link up with one another, and, pretty soon, the whole system is firing together.

This is why learning a major skill can be pretty complicated. Take learning to walk, for instance. When you’re young, learning how to walk takes all of your attention and energy.

But as an adult, you no longer have to think much about the process. You can think about it if you really want to, but those neural connections are already established.

The entire neural pathway is firing at once, and the neurons are really tightly wired together. So you only have to give it a vague, general nudge, and the pathways that control walking down the street just make it happen.

That’s why you, these days, can do so many other things as you walk. As you stroll along, you can eat a snack or talk to a friend or chew gum. You can trust that well-established neural pathway to ensure you keep on moving.

You want this same sort of thing to happen with affirmations. One of the major reasons to practice affirmations is to make those ideas our default thoughts. We’re attempting to rewire the brain so tightly that we think of those things automatically.

When we practice affirmations, we are engaging our conscious awareness in the process of thinking new default thoughts. We keep doing this until we’ve cultivated them so tightly that we can just give a general nudge and fire off a whole pattern of thought.

Repetition Reinforces the Connections That Rewire Your Brain

Does saying an affirmation just once rewire your brain? Well, it may start to form a connection between neurons, but neural connections that last come through repetition.

That’s why, the first time you practice a skill, you don’t necessarily nail it. As you do more and more reps, you improve.

Think back to when you first learned your times tables. Perhaps your teacher was teaching you seven times seven. Imagine the scene:

Teacher: Class, seven times seven is 49. Everyone say it.

Class: Seven times seven is 49.

Teacher. Good. What’s seven times seven?

Class: 49!

Teacher: Let’s say it again. Seven times seven equals 49.

Class: Seven times seven equals 49.

That sort of situation sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You’ve probably learned many things in this way. Repetition builds neural connections. Even if you didn’t know the science behind it before now, you still probably understood this fact to be true.

Do Affirmations Rewire Your Brain? Yes, and Intentional Practices Help

Now that you understand some of the neuroscience involved in learning and memory, you can be more intentional with your affirmation repetitions.

7×7 Over the Long Haul

Let’s go back to the example of learning your multiplication tables.

If the teacher told you that seven times seven equals 49 and immediately asked you the answer, you probably would have remembered it.

But pretend that this is what happened next:

Teacher: Class, what is two times two?

Class: Four!

Teacher: What is two times four?

Class: Eight!

Teacher: What is seven times seven?

After reciting those other facts, 49 wouldn’t be so fresh in your mind. You might remember the answer, or you might not.

But let’s say that the teacher reminded you, and you practiced it a few more times. After that, you might be able to do a few other problems and then bring “seven times seven equals 49” back to mind.

What if, after that, you didn’t practice it again for a week? There’s a good chance that you’d have a hard time recalling the answer. New math facts don’t readily stick in your mind without frequent repetition.

Fortunately, when you were a kid, you practiced that multiplication fact again and again and again. You may have worked on it throughout the fourth grade and done frequent practice in fifth grade. Over the next few years, you probably needed to know the product of seven times seven fairly often as you worked on math assignments.

So these days, even if you don’t do multiplication very often, it might not take any time at all to come up with 49 as the answer if asked.

I know that the multiplication tables might seem rather irrelevant to the topic of affirmations. But the practice of establishing strong neural connections is the same no matter what you’re learning.

Spaced Repetition

The key principle that I want you to take away from these multiplication examples is something called spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition is an incredibly useful practice when you’re trying to learn something new — including when you’re trying to learn a new default pattern for your thoughts.

The idea with spaced repetition is that, at first, you practice something a lot of times. Eventually, you can then space out the repetitions. By doing that, you increase your ability to retain that skill or knowledge.

Spaced Swinging

It’s kind of like pushing a child on a swing. You start with a few big pushes. After that, you push pretty regularly for a while. But then, as the swing really gets going, the child will keep moving even if you don’t push quite as often.

Affirmations work in the same way. If your goal is to rewire your brain and change your default thoughts, then you’ll want to be repping out the affirmation a lot in the beginning.

As it starts to become easier and easier to connect with that thought and remember what it means for you in your world, then you can space out your practice of that affirmation. Ultimately, you can just do maintenance and housekeeping, saying the affirmation to yourself only every now and then.

Spaced Multiplication

Trust me, I haven’t thought of my seven’s times tables in a long time. A really long time. But it’s in there so deeply from my childhood practice that I now have ownership or mastery of that skill.

Could it go away eventually? Sure, probably. But math in one form or another comes up in my life often enough that I still get those reps in here and there.

Our goal is to do the same things with affirmations. We’re wanting to practice affirmations in such a way that we get the reps in. In doing that, we build those neural pathways that “rewire” the brain. 

Then, we’ll benefit from our rewired brains in much the same way that we benefit from walking once we learn to walk, talking once we learn to talk, and multiplying once we learn our math facts. We have that knowledge and those skills. We own them.

By saying them often enough, you will start to own your affirmation thoughts too.

When you use repetition, especially spaced repetition, for your affirmation practice, you will become the master of a new thought. When that happens, you could say that your brain has been rewired.
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