The Adaptable Brain

What’s the most amazing thing in the universe? Answer: your brain. Its billions of neurons manage the autonomic functions without a thought. It filters out non-salient sensations, and processes the raw sense-data into something meaningful. The brain allows us to listen, speak, and move. Somehow, it provides the foundation for conscious awareness and executive control. The brain also learns, allowing us to develop skills and preserve memories for later recall.

The wiring in our brains starts in the womb and continues to develop in our childhood. If you really want to learn a foreign language or play the violin, starting in early childhood is an advantage since the way the brain gets wired depends on what demands are placed on it. Our earliest experiences and memories create the basic patterns of neural connections and firing patterns that provide the framework for later neural development. The adaptability of the brain is amazing. Even when injured, it is possible for the brain to rewire itself to accomplish the job. If you suffer a stroke, for example, and if you try to accomplish a task you can not do after the injury, you may still be able to learn how to do it. The brain builds a different network. But, many of us settle into doing the same things over and over again, often those things we did in childhood. This is one reason early experiences are so important.

A child who watched TV most of the time will probably be good at passively watching TV. I can do that fairly well. My brain’s pathways developed to support that kind of input. Had I played basketball day after day, I would now be playing in the NBA, if only I were taller, stronger, faster, and better coordinated. The brain also regulates our emotions. A happy child is more likely to be a happy adult. Emotionally painful experiences are more likely to be lodged in the major arteries of our neural networks and will probably affect how we experience things in later life.

So, what are your earliest memories? Are they pleasant, neutral, or painful?

We often remember what someone told us happened instead of having a memory of the actual experience. We sometimes believe we have memories of an experience, when we actually formed the memory later on, by say recalling pictures we have seen. We may have memories we think are real, but were only dreams. The reality of the situation gets mixed in with dreams, later experiences, what others have said, and so on. It may become nearly impossible to sort out what really happened (as if we could do that anyway) when we were two or three or even four.

But, there are a precious few memories that we can be fairly sure are accurate. Some are simply moments that became lodged in our brains. I remember when I was three or four, I was walking in the neighbor’s back yard, feeling lonely, heading to knock on the door of an older boy’s house to see if he would come out to play. I had a brief moment, back then, when my sensations were frozen in time. It felt a little like déjà vu, but my experience then suggested the memory would be preserved for the future: a kind of “pre vu” instead of deja vu. Do you have those moments where time stops for a second, the brain’s shutter clicks, and you remember the moment forever? I have those “snapshot BrainKodak memories every once in a while. It’s generally not intentional; a feeling comes over me, and I know the memory is somehow fixed.

Unusual experiences have also been preserved in my memory banks from long ago. I remember, for example, pounding on an ant hill by our old wooden garage, causing hundreds of frenzied ants to emerge from the sandy soil, looking for invaders, namely me. My karma probably took a hit for that bit of cruelty. There was another time while running through the sprinklers in the backyard, that the ants took their revenge and bit me. Maybe the books are balanced.

Strong emotions help make memories permanent. I recall when I stopped my slide down a small hill using my chin. Since this braking occurred on the sidewalk there was lots of bleeding. I wasn’t very bright. I still have the scar to remind me of that moment.

We also remember events that we anticipated and thought a lot about afterwards. I recall a group of boys who lived a few streets over called me a name and told me to come to their house for a fight. I remember being scared and not knowing what to do. I was at the age when I had learned to never tell on anyone. So, asking my parents what to do was not an option. So I fretted about it, but I eventually walked over to the house where the boys were on the porch, and I announced I was ready. I have no idea what happened afterwards, but I know we ended up playing together.

I was a pretty obedient boy outside the house, but I do remember doing a few bad things. The next door neighbor boy was a tough cookie. He “encouraged” me to join him in his mischief. Apparently, he beat me up every once in a while, but I have no actual memory of that. (Odd how some painful memories can’t be suppressed [like in PTSD] and others can’t be recalled [as in repression]). I think he actually threatened me more than he hit me. However, I do remember telling my dad once that this neighbor had hit me. My dad suggested that I hit him back, but my mom vetoed that idea. I think his dad often gave him a whipping with a belt. I talked with this neighbor later in life. I don’t think the whipping worked.

I also have some memories of happy times. I remember being in the basement with my cardboard submarine. I was lucky to have such great toys. This was one of my favorite Christmas presents. My brothers, however, did not like the present much because it fired cardboard missiles, and they were my favorite targets.

When a tree is planted in good soil and given sunlight and water, the roots will be thick and run deep as they draw sustenance from the environment. On the other hand, when a tree is planted in poor dirt and its basic needs are needs are not being met, the tree roots will be spindly, and the leaves will reflect this. Think about these questions:

What did you need in early childhood that you did not receive? How do you think that impacted you in later life?

What did you do repeatedly as a child? How was your brain trained?

How did you interact with others as a child? Are you following those same patterns?

And most importantly, how can you take advantage of the adaptability of the brain–the most amazing organ in the known universe? What would you like to change about how your brain is wired?

It’s not too late to develop new skills and new emotional reactions if you try repeatedly to change.

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