This is the fascinating way that your brain makes space to build new and stronger connections so you can learn more.
There’s an old saying in neuroscience: neurons that fire together wire together. This means the more you run a neuro-circuit in your brain, the stronger that circuit becomes. This is why, to quote another old saw, practice makes perfect. The more you practice piano, or speaking a language, or juggling, the stronger those circuits get.
For years this has been the focus for learning new things. But as it turns out, the ability to learn is about more than building and strengthening neural connections. Even more important is our ability to break down the old ones. It's called "synaptic pruning." Here’s how it works.
The ability to learn is about more than building and strengthening neural connections.
YOUR BRAIN IS LIKE A GARDEN
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.
WHY SLEEP MATTERS
Have you ever felt like your brain is full? Maybe when starting a new job, or deep in a project. You’re not sleeping enough, even though you're constantly taking in new information. Well, in a way, your brain actually is full.
When you learn lots of new things, your brain builds connections, but they’re inefficient, ad hoc connections. Your brain needs to prune a lot of those connections away and build more streamlined, efficient pathways. It does that when we sleep.
Your brain cleans itself out when you sleep—your brain cells shrink by up to 60% to create space for your glial gardeners to come in take away the waste and prune the synapses.
Have you ever woken up from a good night’s rest and been able to think clearly and quickly? That’s because all the pruning and pathway-efficiency that took place overnight has left you with lots of room to take in and synthesize new information— in other words, to learn.
Thinking with a sleep- deprived brain is like hacking your way through a dense jungle with a machete. Its overgrown, slow going, exhausting.
This is the same reason naps are so beneficial to your cognitive abilities. A 10- or 20- minute nap gives your microglial gardeners the chance to come in, clear away some unused connections, and leave space to grow new ones.
Thinking with a sleep-deprived brain is like hacking your way through a dense jungle with a machete. It's overgrown, slow- going, exhausting. The paths overlap, and light can’t get through. Thinking on a well-rested brain is like wandering happily through Central Park; the paths are clear and connect to one another at distinct spots, the trees are in place, you can see far ahead of you. It’s invigorating.
BE MINDFUL OF WHAT YOU’RE MINDFUL OF
And in fact, you actually have some control over what your brain decides to delete while you sleep. It's the synaptic connections you don’t use that get marked for recycling. The ones you do use are the ones that get watered and oxygenated. So be mindful of what you’re thinking about.
If you spend too much time reading theories about the end of Game of Thrones and very little on your job, guess which synapses are going to get marked for recycling?
If you’re in a fight with someone at work and devote your time to thinking about how to get even with them, and not about that big project, you're going to wind up a synaptic superstar at revenge plots but a poor innovator.
To take advantage of your brain’s natural gardening system, simply think about the things that are important to you. Your gardeners will strengthen those connections and prune the ones that you care about less. It's how you help the garden of your brain flower.
Judah Pollack is the coauthor of The Chaos Imperative, and Olivia Fox Cabane is the author of The Charisma Myth.
Click this link to learn essential skills to support the development of emotional agility in your children.
Teaching Your Child Emotional Agility
Hugh Byrne 2015-12-28 63:56
Attitudes that Support Mindful Presence: Acceptance, Kindness, and Curiosity
Insight Meditation Community of Washington DC: 2015 IMCW New Year Retreat: Awakening the Heart of Compassion
Click here to listen
Click this link to read on...Harvard Unveils MRI Study Proving Meditation Literally Rebuilds The Brain’s Gray Matter In 8 Weeks
The Disease of Being Busyby Omid Safi (@ostadjaan),
I saw a dear friend a few days ago. I stopped by to ask her how she was doing, how her family was. She looked up, voice lowered, and just whimpered: “I’m so busy… I am so busy… have so much going on.”
Almost immediately after, I ran into another friend and asked him how he was. Again, same tone, same response: “I’m just so busy… got so much to do.”
The tone was exacerbated, tired, even overwhelmed.
And it’s not just adults. When we moved to North Carolina about ten years ago, we were thrilled to be moving to a city with a great school system. We found a diverse neighborhood, filled with families. Everything felt good, felt right.
After we settled in, we went to one of the friendly neighbors, asking if their daughter and our daughter could get together and play. The mother, a really lovely person, reached for her phone and pulled out the calendar function. She scrolled… and scrolled… and scrolled. She finally said: “She has a 45-minute opening two and half weeks from now. The rest of the time it’s gymnastics, piano, and voice lessons. She’s just…. so busy.”
Horribly destructive habits start early, really early.
How did we end up living like this? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to our children? When did we forget that we are human beings, not human doings?
Whatever happened to a world in which kids get muddy, get dirty, get messy, and heavens, get bored? Do we have to love our children so much that we overschedule them, making them stressed and busy — just like us?
What happened to a world in which we can sit with the people we love so much and have slow conversations about the state of our heart and soul, conversations that slowly unfold, conversations with pregnant pauses and silences that we are in no rush to fill?
How did we create a world in which we have more and more and more to do with less time for leisure, less time for reflection, less time for community, less time to just… be?
Somewhere we read, “The unexamined life is not worth living… for a human.” How are we supposed to live, to examine, to be, to become, to be fully human when we are so busy?
This disease of being “busy” (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.
Since the 1950s, we have had so many new technological innovations that we thought (or were promised) would make our lives easier, faster, simpler. Yet, we have no more “free” or leisurely time today than we did decades ago.
For some of us, the “privileged” ones, the lines between work and home have become blurred. We are on our devices. All. The. Freaking. Time.
Smart phones and laptops mean that there is no division between the office and home. When the kids are in bed, we are back online.
One of my own daily struggles is the avalanche of email. I often refer to it as my jihad against email. I am constantly buried under hundreds and hundreds of emails, and I have absolutely no idea how to make it stop. I’ve tried different techniques: only responding in the evenings, not responding over weekends, asking people to schedule more face-to-face time. They keep on coming, in volumes that are unfathomable: personal emails, business emails, hybrid emails. And people expect a response — right now. I, too, it turns out… am so busy.
The reality looks very different for others. For many, working two jobs in low-paying sectors is the only way to keep the family afloat. Twenty percent of our children are living in poverty, and too many of our parents are working minimum wage jobs just to put a roof over their head and something resembling food on the table. We are so busy.
The old models, including that of a nuclear family with one parent working outside the home (if it ever existed), have passed away for most of us. We now have a majority of families being single families, or where both parents are working outside the home. It is not working.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal?
What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.
I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul.
Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you’re more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.
Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second. Tell me something about your heart, and awaken my heart. Help me remember that I too am a full and complete human being, a human being who also craves a human touch.
I teach at a university where many students pride themselves on the “study hard, party hard” lifestyle. This might be a reflection of many of our lifestyles and our busy-ness — that even our means of relaxation is itself a reflection of that same world of overstimulation. Our relaxation often takes the form of action-filled (yet mindless) films, or violent and face-paced sports.
I don’t have any magical solutions. All I know is that we are losing the ability to live a truly human life.
We need a different relationship to work, to technology. We know what we want: a meaningful life, a sense of community, a balanced existence. It’s not just about “leaning in” or faster iPhones. We want to be truly human.
W. B. Yeats once wrote:
“It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.”
How exactly are we supposed to examine the dark corners of our soul when we are so busy? How are we supposed to live the examined life?
I am always a prisoner of hope, but I wonder if we are willing to have the structural conversation necessary about how to do that, how to live like that. Somehow we need a different model of organizing our lives, our societies, our families, our communities.
I want my kids to be dirty, messy, even bored — learning to become human. I want us to have a kind of existence where we can pause, look each other in the eye, touch one another, and inquire together: Here is how my heart is doing? I am taking the time to reflect on my own existence; I am in touch enough with my own heart and soul to know how I fare, and I know how to express the state of my heart.
How is the state of your heart today?
Let us insist on a type of human-to-human connection where when one of us responds by saying, “I am just so busy,” we can follow up by saying, “I know, love. We all are. But I want to know how your heart is doing.”
Loosing your humanity to the culture of busyness? Check out this video on being human...kinda? Watch here
Three Surprising Ways to Feel Less Busy
by Christine Carter
Tips for achieving relaxed productivity—and why you can't afford to ignore them.
Although people tell me all the time they like feeling busy—perhaps because it makes them feel important and significant—I’m not buying it. Would you ever choose busyness over a more relaxed form of productivity? When life starts to feel hectic, here are a few ways to dial back the overwhelm.
1. Give yourself a shot of aweWhen researchers induced feelings of awe in people—by showing them video clips of people next to vast things like whales or waterfalls—it altered their perception of time such that the people felt like they had more time on their hands. So much time on their hands, in fact, that awestruck people become likely to give away their time by volunteering to help someone out. They also report fewer feelings of impatience.
Not sure where to find yourself some awe? Look no farther than YouTube. Try searching “awe” and “whales,” or just watch this oldie but goodie video clip—it makes me feel awestruck every time. If the concept of “awe” feels too abstract, try thinking about things that amaze you. What makes you feel a childlike sense of wonder? Makes you feel elevated or inspired? Now take five minutes to let one of those things work their magic on your busy brain.
2. Create an anti-busyness ritualResearchers believe that the brains in both humans and animals evolved to feel calmed by repetitive behavior, and that our daily rituals are a primary way to manage stress. This is especially true in unpredictable environments or situations where we feel pressured, a lack of control, or threatened in some way.
When the pace of life seems to be taking off without you, create a ritual to help you feel more in control. What counts as a ritual? Something you do repetitively in certain situations—usually a series of behaviors done in the same order. Think of your favorite ball player’s pregame ritual.
When I start to feel pressured for time, my own “busyness ritual” kicks in: I stretch my neck (first by looking to the left, and then to the right, and then by tipping my left ear to my left shoulder and my right ear to my right shoulder). I exhale deeply with each stretch, and then center my head, and straighten my posture. On my last exhale, I think to myself: “I have plenty of time.” The stretching and deep breathing may be what helps me feel calm, but also having and using a ritual—any ritual—can help us feel more in control and less overwhelmed.
3. Find “flow”Dropping into “the zone” or finding flow is the opposite of feeling busy. Time seems to stand still—if we are aware of time at all. Flow isn’t as elusive a state as you might think, but it does require that we stop multi-tasking, and that we build a fortress against interruption around ourselves. (I also have a “get into the flow” ritual that I use before I write).
I know, I know. You don’t have time to foster awe, or create an anti-busyness ritual, or stop multi-tasking. You’re too busy!
Listen: You don’t have time NOT to do these things. Busyness is a mark of what neuroscientists call “cognitive overload.” This state impairs our ability to think creatively, to plan, organize, innovate, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn new things easily, speak fluently, remember important social information, and control our emotions. In other words, it impairs basically everything we need to do in a given day. So if you have important work to do, please: Take five minutes to dial back your busyness.
By Will Donnelly from Spiritually and Health Magazine...
The best two pieces of advice I have ever heard after over thirty years of doing spiritual work are this:
Life advice: Don’t be shitty
Meditation advice: Just stop. Stop trying to do or be anything as you meditate.
The first piece of advice is self-evident. After taking all the workshops and personal growth classes, reading all the spiritual books, and taking the yoga classes, at the end of the day, the greatest spiritual advice ever is to not be shitty. Don’t be shitty to yourself, or to others. Crude? Yes. But, right on point nonetheless. Wars would either lessen or stop. Marriages would survive. Fragile creative human psyches would flourish. Best. Advice. Ever.
So how do we cultivate a mind that isn’t mean/cruel/neglectful? Through meditation of course. Yet, after years of watching myself and others try to master lineages and techniques and habits, the only thing that matters with regard to meditation and spiritual awakening is that we just stop. In fact, the physical practice of yoga is designed to simply help us stop our overly active minds.
In Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga is specifically defined. Here’s yoga sutra #2 (1.2): Yogas Chittas Vrtti Nirhodhah - “Yoga is the ceasing of the fluctuations of the mind.” Please note it does not say yoga is the perfect back bend. It is ironic that the physical body is the mechanism that can be most helpful in transcending the physical body.
When we sit in meditation, the real goal is not to master a technique. The real goal is to simply stop the fluctuations of the mind.
Stop doing anything other than just sitting there observing.
First, we need to notice that it is actually happening. Once we understand that this is our practice, to simply become the observer, we then disempower our ego (the monkey mind), softening it. Don’t panic, it will certainly be there throughout your journey, for that is what the mind is designed to do. But it is only when we choose to stop and gently pull away from the constant churning of our minds, that our observer consciousness can finally rise to the forefront. In yoga, this mind is called the (infinite) Self, which reveals our ever-present inner wisdom and takes us from darkness to light (our divine inner guru).
The analogy is that our spirit is like a gentle mist. If we are in constant movement and motion, that mist is always stirred up and can never be seen or felt. It’s there, but it’s too diluted. But if we soften and settle down, quiet our minds from the ever-present grasping that it is wired to do, then we have the chance at allowing spirit to “settle in” and be seen and felt and heard, just as the morning mist is settled into a calm valley.
What happens in meditation? We learn to pay attention to what is happening right now. How our mind goes on and on. How the gentle breeze caresses our skin. How the ambulance siren frays our nerves, and so on.
When we contemplate stopping our mind from being in control, where does it take us? The mind will continually say “HEY, what about me?” and we can continually return to that neutral mind that observes that our mind is saying “HEY, what about me?” It’s like watching a movie.
As we “stop,” we naturally deepen the relaxation of our muscles and settle in more deeply. We notice the inhale and exhale of our breath. We naturally return to the present moment, where all human power resides. We learn to follow the present moment just as a surfer follows the crest of a wave along the shore. If we are trying to surf a wave, staring forward at the shoreline (the future) or looking back at the horizon line (the past), will always throw us off balance. We will miss what is being offered by the wave of the present moment, and we will most certainly keep falling down.
Yet as we settle in, and our observer mind is allowed to be the witness to the countless rise and fall of 10,000 things, we begin to understand that it is better to engage the source of our longing, rather than the longings themselves.
Click here to view this wonderful animation on how mindfulness empowers us, by Sharon Salzberg
New research suggests mindfulness can strengthen our natural defenses.
Read more here