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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks: Synapses and Decision Making

Have you ever had a moment where you are frantically searching for something, your keys for instance, and then eventually find it in an obvious place that you had already looked in? You wonder on these occasions how it is possible that you didn't see it the first time you looked. The reason is that the first time you looked, your keys simply weren't there. Sometimes when we are looking at something we aren't actually seeing it, we are remembering it. Your brain is really busy and because of this, fails sometimes to process new information. Physics is the study of matter and energy and their relationship with each other. Some physicists believe that most of what we think we see is really just our brain sending us a memory of what we've seen before. What this means is that to truly view something as new we must pause and focus on seeing it. This is why we couldn't see our lost keys. When we were looking for them our brain sent us a memory of the spot we were looking in and in that memory our keys weren't there. It's like sitting at a stop sign and when you looked for traffic, you saw none. But then when you pull out into the street suddenly there's a car there that you hadn't noticed before. You weren't actually seeing the intersection, your brain was assuming.


We become accustomed to living so quickly, to moving at such a fast pace that we don't actually consume what is in front of us. Science by way of physics has proven this. When you ask yourself the question, "How did I miss that when it was right in front of me," you are acknowledging the idea that the connections made by your nervous system have become habitual. For instance, why do we feel physical pain? It is because when we cut our skin or touch something hot our nerve endings are built to send the message to our brain that we are hurt. When you go to the dentist and they numb your mouth, what they are doing is impairing the ability of those nerve endings to send that message which means that the brain isn't able to tell us that we are hurt. When the medication wears off and your nerve endings "wake up" what we feel is the aftermath, the wound but not the initial injury. We can't feel the initial injury because our nerve endings were sleeping when it occured and are therefore completely unaware of it. We spend the first years of lives building more synapses or connections in our brains than any other time in our lives. A three year old actually has twice as many connections as an adult. From age ten to twenty, trillions of extra connections are eliminated. The connections that have been used consistently have become stronger and stay; those that have not been used often enough do not. If two children fall down in exactly the same way at the same time one may cry hysterically while the other just stands up and dusts off their knees. It's not because one child is hurt more than the other, it is because their environment has helped them form synapses that tell their nerve endings to tell their brain that they are more hurt. The point I'm making is that the way we react to life is based on the connections our brain has been building since birth. All of the cells in our brain have the potential to form a connection but only the connections which are used remain. It is survival of the fittest.

The phrase "practice makes perfect" takes on a whole new meaning. Since our nervous system dictates our reactions to stimuli based on the connections or synapses that are there then how do we change something in ourselves? Are we powerless against these habits? As adults we are forming connections too, just less frequently. Learning a new skill forms a connection, learning a language. Habitual decision making reinforces connections and branching out and trying new things forms new connections. What you must do is to realize that your brain is never in a static, permanent state. It changes everyday based on the choices you do or do not make. You are creating pathways everyday which determine how you are projected onto the world. Make conscious decisions don't live based on presumed circumstances, don't let habitual connections determine how you consume your environment. Open your eyes, make a choice to really see what you're looking at. Retrain your brain and open the gate to your endless possibility.

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