It is about brain plasticity. I don’t mean brain falsehoods. That’s something we see to the South; I will get to that in future columns.
As hippies we used to judge anything that was false or useless, even unethical, as plastic. “That’s so plastic, man.”
That’s not what this is about. Plasticity in reference to our brains means that they are flexible; that is, we can change the way we think.
Dangerously, plasticity works the other way too, so that if we keep on doing things the way we have always done them, there will be no change in how we think. But we may get extremely anxious about our habits. Consider yours, especially the ones you want to break.
“Oh no, did I do that again!” You did because you were not aware that there is a neuron, a cell, in your brain that keeps on messaging you to do what you may be ashamed of. You have about twenty billion brain cells. Changing a few to behaviour that is more comfortable should be easy.
But it is not. It takes a careful, alert mind and concentration to stop stuck neurons from having their way. To change our actions and our thinking that directs those actions we need to take a careful, alert, mindful approach. We have to pay attention.
Take your index finger for example. It has a neuron, a single brain cell, that tells you to lift it. Another neuron tells you to pump your arm. This happens even when you are not consciously aware that you just gave someone the finger and already you wish you hadn’t.
Here’s another example. You reach for that door handle that always gives you a static jolt. “Damn it, it did it again!” No, you did it again. Only when you slow down, just a little, and start developing new neurons in your noggin will you remember grab that door handle in a different way. Put a sock on that door handle. Some of us could put a sock on that special finger too.
In my previous column (Jan. 24) I introduced myself as a wag who is beyond what universities call ‘mature student’, meaning a returning student in their middle years. In that piece I referred to myself as an ‘over ripe student’ and because I was starting to smell, Thompson Rivers University had better get rid of me.
Perhaps you have noticed I like to abuse humour. Laughter is such an engaging stimulant to wisdom. I think it even creates new neurons. I’m not sure yet what it does to old neurons.
I can explain what ignited my brain to this fire-shtick. Last semester I took a journalism course from Professor Chuck Hays. He introduced me to the writing of Howard Rheingold who claimed that Claude Shannon, one of the founders of our beloved Internet, “… established information (theory) as a cosmic fundamental, along with energy and matter.”
I thought, “This is stunning!” I wanted to know more. But how was I going study energy and matter and its relationship to information when I’m not familiar with the mathematics of physics. Surely information is about how we communicate and matter and energy is about physics. I don’t have the math skills to study physics. I took high school math at TRU nine years ago and failed it twice, honorably. I really studied hard for those exams and I really wanted to pass my courses.
At that time, I didn’t know squat about brain plasticity. Now I do. I’m taking another math course and my marks are in the 80s and better. I am teaching my brain, two paired neurons at a time to comprehend algebra and go on to physics. This is an astonishing journey!
Too many names and stuff to remember, reader, too much fact pattern. Relax, just nourish your neurons, put a sock on that door handle and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
Elon Newstrom is a Kamloops resident and sometime university student.