The Most Important Thing I Am Thinking About Right Now

How Neurons Are Like Pathways

Recently I’ve been realizing that it is all the really simple things in our lives that actually help us create good lives, like drinking enough water, getting 8 hours of sleep, being nice to people, etc…

I’ve also been researching neural networks a bit, as well as meditation and dreams, and I am somewhat obsessively thinking about how hard it is for us to not react to the world instead of having our own agency in life. In fact, for some of us, it may take decades of life in order to feel like we have been able to take a hold of our own lives and call them our own.

A lot of this has to do with how our brain, with it’s 100 billion or so neurons, is wired. Firstly, our brains are malleable far into adulthood. It was previously thought that once we were done with our childhood and entered young adulthood our brains were basically wired up and either healthy or damaged. Turns out that basically does happen, but there is nothing to stop us from rewiring our house, or remodeling the kitchen with extra track lighting.

In fact, this growth and change is essential for healthy brain function. (On a side note, exercise and eating right can help us avoid developing plaque in our brain cells, which ultimately are the root causes of Alzheimers and dementia) Good sleep and healthy brain function seems to go hand in hand, as well as numerous other factors.

These are the factors influencing brain development and function:

Sensory and motor experience

Psychoactive drugs

Gonadal hormones

Parent-child relationships

Peer relationships

Stress

Intestinal flora

Diet

We have agency over many of those factors, including drugs, experiences, relationships, diet, and stress. But what I have been contemplating for awhile now is how we don’t have agency over the past. The past has already happened. But we can change our relationship with it, and we can change how we perceive it.

That is not easy because our own neural networks become wired in certain ways and it takes a lot of repetition of new experiences in order to rewire them. For instance, I have not been able to let go of my craving for Sour Cream and Onion Potato chips (as an example of how powerful our brains are, the mere act of typing this makes me hungry for Sour Cream and Onion potato chips…). I know that they are not good for me, but ever since I began to eat them as I child, I associate them with happiness. In times of stress, they are always there for me and I know that the experience of eating them will be comforting, which sounds silly but is also true.

They are such small trivial things, but every bag of potato chips that I enjoy keeps strengthening that network in my brain that tells me I love potato chips. Every bag of chips also helps produce extra pounds on my body. It is not the individual bag that counts, it is the accumulated baggage, the repetition of the act of eating a bag of chips.

I recently quite smoking and it seemed to me, and is backed up in the paper cited before, that it took about 14–30 days before I felt like my addiction was fading. That is how long it takes for your basic circuitry to rewire itself.

It does not work for most to simply subtract a networked behavior. We must replace the unwanted behavior with other wanted behaviors to strengthen new connections in our brain.

It’s like building a new trail. If the old trail is there, you’re gonna take it. But if you build a new one beside it, every time you come to that juncture, you have a new choice, and every time you take the new trail it becomes more hardwired to do so.

If, every time I feel the need to eat a bag of chips I go for a brisk walk down the road, soon enough that circuitry will fade away and I will have a brand new circuit, or path, that I walk in response to my feelings, which in large part are generated by the brain, or processed there at the very least.

So really it all comes down to choosing the behaviors you want to have, and repetition. This seems so ridiculously simple at face value that I hadn’t ever really invested time into thinking about, until I began to see how it is all the simple things in life that really make a difference.

A note: There are many things needed to overcome addictions and the way our minds are wired. I find writing, meditation, yoga, and time outdoors to be some of the primary ways that i like to reset my neural networks on a daily, yearly, and even lifelong basis. The support of friends and family is also essential.

If you look at the above list of factors that influence your brain development, you can see that changing all those factors not only will change your brain, but also your life.