(Use It Or Lose It)
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always known that the best quality thoughts come unbidden.
Give my brain a task: something to think about. Then move on. Day-dream, go for a walk, doze, even sleep ‘properly’, listen to some music or whatever else you can do that’s neutral. Sooner or later, almost every time, after a while fresh thoughts in response to the given task will occur. And the fresh thoughts will often be better thoughts. Thoughts more useful and more original than those gnawing away at an issue normally create.
I am trying to get to grips with pushing myself more with both writing music and with drawing. These days, post crash, that all feels like it is slower going than it used to be. But that is not to say it’s unpleasant.
And it’s that – pushing myself – that led me to think about the process of learning.
Neurons Looking For Playmates
I think we forget the pleasure of using your brain for something that stretches it, that makes it fitter.
Scientific measurements are now so sophisticated they can detect that a lot of what we think of as conscious thoughts are in fact coming after the event. If you like, your brain already knows what it’s going to do before your conscious mind does. The time difference is fractions of second, but it’s still real.
It seems the exception comes when you are asking your brain to do something new. That’s when your conscious brain is far more animated and leading the way. Learning something new is an opportunity for your conscious brain to go to work, to be aroused.
We all know that exercise is a good thing, and that applies to your brain as well as your muscles. And if we’re being honest, we all know that you have to put in the effort to get the reward.
But yes, we also all know that copping-out from making an effort is often very attractive. I don’t know why it’s alluring. It’s counter-productive. Perhaps it’s some kind of innate self-defence against getting too tired, dating back to when we lived harsh hunter-gathering lives. Maybe it’s as simple as peer pressure, or advertising, or laziness …
Whatever. Let’s make it personal. Speaking just for myself, I know it is that when I put the effort in – exercising my body or my brain – I feel better for it. These days, more than ever before, if I scrutinise it, I also know my brain feels different dealing with new challenges. I am, as it were, self-aware of that difference. Strange as it is to say it, I think I’m being honest and accurate when I say I somehow can feel my brain making new connections within itself. I certainly get a uniquely rewarding sense of satisfaction from putting in the effort.
Perhaps what I’m describing is akin to life when you’re very young, when so much more of the world is new to you. A while back now, I watched a toddler exploring the world around it in a coffee shop, while the accompanying adults chatted. And the toddler was visibly, happily absorbed to a degree very rarely achieved in adult life.
I have to be realistic: I’m no scientist, nor a doctor. This is all just my experience, my understanding, my guess. All I can throw into the mix is that I’ve read in a (layman’s) book about brain surgery that finding new mental challenges is a way to help stave off the ‘classic’ mental deterioration that too often comes with old age.
More than defensively trying to learn though, and as icing on the cake, taking on new mental challenges becomes all the more enjoyable if you accept that nothing is fixed in life. Embrace that. And then everything is enriched by keeping on learning, keeping on thinking, always challenging any rut you find yourself in.
As a sort-of footnote, I think there’s a lurking question in this talk about brains. In very simple terms – brain activity and comparative testing shows we’ve a lot in common with other animals. Fine – the question is, what makes us different?
Today, I wondered if the answer lies in the human ability to create, communicate and share a recorded history. But if these skills are the key differentiating elements, the focus then shifts to how well do we learn from those same elements. Human history demonstrates a lot of repetitive stupidity – from the trivial to the monumental in scale. Why?
Arguably … what it means for the brain to be giving the brain a task is a distinct issue in its own right. Is the brain thinking about the brain inherently a perpetual paradox? Logic and the problems that come with being judge, jury and executioner suggests it is. And what it means when the brain is looking at the brains of others is another thing entirely.