Currently biking around the world

Posts will happen significantly less often for a while as I am currently focused on biking around the world.

It could be a few months between posts or it could be a few years. I will almost certainly return to this blog one day. In the meantime, enjoy what's already been posted, or read about my travels here.

The Brain: A Roadmap

Monday, April 25, 2016

I once had a dog named Bear. He was a bit of a goofball. As with many dogs, he would eat almost anything. However, he developed a particular liking for the flavor of whipped cream. We bought the kind that was pressurized and thus made a particular sound when squirted from the can -- compressed air volumizing the whipped cream, making it fluffy.
One time a few months after Bear discovered his love of whipped cream, my mom left the door open when shaving her legs. Bear was in a room nearby, and when my mom started squirting shaving cream from the can, which produced that familiar sound, he came running in and started licking the shaving cream right off her legs.
Habit is a funny thing. I mentioned in my last post that playing Tetris can cause one to think about the real world like Tetris blocks and even cause one to dream about those blocks.1 2 I know what you’re thinking: Bear’s habit of eating anything that makes the whipped cream sound and having Tetris on the brain are two separate things. We often think of habit as physical actions chained together (“go eat the cream”). But habits can be mental as well (“if this was an ‘L’ piece…”). Bear’s behavior is a case of classical conditioning3 and Tetris dreams a case of hypnagogic (pre-sleep) memory creation,4 but both are examples of habit learning.5
Habit learning can be summarized as the “acquisition of associations between stimuli and responses;” that is, our brains learning to associate causes and effects, enhancing certain neural pathways. To simplify things, let’s just say the brain builds “roads” between various memories, and the more these roads are travelled the easier they become to travel. The more you think something, the easier it is to think it again.6 This happens regardless of why you thought something or if it is correct or incorrect. For instance, being in a bad mood can cause us to have different morals than we’d have when in a good mood.7 From the “bad mood” nodes of our brain, the easiest roads to travel are often those with “bad” morals.
Furthermore, once these paths are created, our subconscious travels them whether we like it or not. They may even form new paths without us knowing -- shortcuts to feelings whose origins are then forgotten, the result of countless choices that we made sometime in the past.8 (I once had a friend who trimmed her nails to calm herself down. She picked up the habit by being calm, then trimming her nails). Even our emotions can manifest as these “unconscious habits.” 9 Let me say that again: our emotions can be habits whose origins we’ve forgotten.
Negative habits can compound themselves by leading to other negative habits, and pretty soon, you’re on a downward spiral with no roads out (literally -- as long as “road” is synonymous with “neural pathway,” of course). When most of your thoughts are negative, you might exhibit symptoms of depression. When most of your thoughts are fearful, you might exhibit symptoms of anxiety.
The good news is that even with all the roadwork your brain has done, you can always forge new roads to other thoughts. A simple way to do this is by creating gratitude lists: at the end of each day, write down a few things you are grateful for. Your brain will likely get into the habit of looking for “good things” throughout the day, and soon you may find your subconscious traveling those roads too. In a study on the effects of gratitude lists, those who wrote them were found to be happier, more optimistic about the future, and physically healthier -- even if they only did them for one week.12
If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts uncontrollably, you might try forcing your conscious into action. For instance, you might have noticed that the more you drive the same route to work, the more your mind wanders. By taking a different route than your usual one, you can force your conscious to focus on driving, making it more difficult for your thoughts to wander.13
Replacing the destination of a well-traveled road can be effective as well (we might call this the “bait and switch”).14 For instance, one of the reasons video games are so appealing is because they provide social interaction combined with a challenge. These are both legitimate psychological needs, but it might be that video games aren’t satisfying anymore. We can’t simply replace them with reading a book -- reading isn’t typically either social or challenging -- but we might replace it with a sport. When your brain feels the need for a challenging social activity, it will think video games. But before long, you can have it thinking soccer, and all the associated thoughts along with your new favorite sport.
Habits are both physical as well as mental. Our brain learns from what we think -- consciously or subconsciously -- but we can build new roads for it to travel. Roads that lead to positive thought.
Just don’t get confused between the whipped cream and the shaving cream.

1A. Earling, The Tetris Effect: Do computer games fry your brain? Philadelphia City Paper, March 21, 1996.
2K. Leutwyler, “Tetris Dreams,”, October, 2000.
3Pavlov, I. P. (1927/1960). Conditional Reflexes. New York: Dover Publications
4Stickgold et. al, “Replaying the Game: Hypnagogic Images in Normals and Amnesics.” Science, October 13th, 2000, Volume 290, Issue 5490, pp 350-53.
5Gasbam et. al, “Habit learning and memory in mammals: Behavioral and neural characteristics.” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, October 2014, Volume 113, pp 198-208.
6Bayley, P, et. al, “Robust habit learning in the absence of awareness and independent of the medial temporal lobe.” Nature. July 2005, Volume 436, pp 550-53.
7Bauml, K.H., et. al, “To push or not to push? Affective influences on moral judgement depend on decision frame.” Cognition, March 2013, Volume 126, Issue 3, pp 373-77.
8Prince, M. The Unconscious: The Fundamentals of Human Personality, Normal and Abnormal. The Macmillan Company, 1914.
9Boorstein, S, et. al, All the Rage: Buddhist Wisdom on Anger and Acceptance. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, MA, 2014, pp 11.
10Nemeth, C.J., et. al, “Creative idea generation: harmony versus stimulation.” European Journal of Social Psychology, 28, 192-99.
11Graybiel, Ann. “Habits, Rituals, and the Evaluative Brain” Annual Review of Neuroscience, July 2008, Volume 31, pp 359-87.
12Emmons, R. A., et. al, Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-89.
13Casey, S. Believe Re-Patterning: The Amazing Technique for “Flipping the Switch” to Positive Thoughts.” Hay House, Inc. Carlsbad, CA, 2012, pp 40.
14Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business. Random House, Inc., New York.

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