I always explained to the patients I worked with in the hospital there was one important thing to understand about how to maximize their brain’s potential which can lead them to be more positive, motivated, understand what it takes to learn new skills and be in control of how they respond to life’s events:
“What fires together, wires together”*
Brain neurons that fire together wire together. What this means is that the more often you use a specific neuro-pathway in your brain, the stronger the connections along that pathway become. It is like making a path through a field: Walk through once and there may be a suggestion of where you went; Walk the same path many times, it becomes a clear trail, and the easiest way to go.
When the same neurons fire in your brain, it means you brain will find it easy to use this path, and will get “good” at taking it. The more you practice the easier, quicker and more automatic a new skill, learning language or responding to others with compassion becomes.
Your brain also works in “reverse”, unlearning old connections.
Your Brain Has A “Delete” Button
“Imagine your brain is a garden, except instead of growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables, you grow synaptic connections between neurons. These are the connections that neurotransmitters like dopamine, seratonin, and others travel across.”
“Glial cells” are the gardeners of your brain–they act to speed up signals between certain neurons. But other glial cells are the waste removers, pulling up weeds, killing pests, raking up dead leaves. Your brain’s pruning gardeners are called “microglial cells.” They prune your synaptic connections. The question is, how do they know which ones to prune?”
“Researchers are just starting to unravel this mystery, but what they do know is the synaptic connections that get used less get marked by a protein, C1q (as well as others). When the microglial cells detect that mark, they bond to the protein and destroy–or prune–the synapse.”
“This is how your brain makes the physical space for you to build new and stronger connections so you can learn more.”
A lot of this pruning happens when you sleep, which is one reason sleep is so important, especially when you are learning new things. This pruning leaves your brain ready to make new connections. This pruning also happens during naps. A 10- or 20-minute nap gives your microglial gardeners the time to clear away unused connections and leave space to grow new ones.
Thinking with a sleep-deprived brain is like hacking your way through an overgrown jungle with overlapping paths and no light getting through . . . slow-going, exhausting. Thinking on a well-rested brain is like strolling through a well-groomed park . . . the paths are clear, connect at distinct junctions, you can see where you’re going.
How To Use Your Brain’s Delete Button
Be Mindful Of What You’re Mindful Of
You actually have some control over what your glial-cell brain gardeners decide to prune while you sleep – the synaptic connections you don’t use while awake get marked for recycling. Those you focus on get “watered and oxygenated”. So be mindful of what you’re thinking about.
To take advantage of your brain’s natural gardening system, think about the things that are important to you. Your “glial-gardeners” will strengthen those connections and prune the ones that are not important.
*Sigrid Lowell coined the phrase“What fires together, wires together”.
Judah Pollack, co-author of The Chaos Imperative, and Olivia Fox Cabana, author of The Charisma Myth.