There’s a fun article in Fast Company that’s titled “Your Brain Has a Delete Button—Here’s How to Use It”
The upshot of it is that the more we repeat a behavior, the more embedded it becomes. The neural circuits associated with the behavior get stronger. Practice makes perfect.
And, no surprise, the less we do something, those circuits actually get snipped while we sleep, which makes them weaker. The old saying, use it or lose it comes into play.
Here’s how the article describes this process, which is called synaptic pruning.
Imagine your brain is a garden, except instead of growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables, you grow synaptic connections between neurons.
“Glial cells” are the gardeners of your brain. Some of these glial cells are the waste removers, pulling up weeds, raking up dead leaves. They snip and prune your synaptic connections.
The question is, how do they know which ones to prune?
Synaptic connections that get used LESS get marked by a particular protein. When those glial cells detect that mark, they bond to the protein and destroy–or prune–the synapse.
We could go into the importance of sleep and naps at this point since this process happens while we sleep, but we’ll save that for another day.
So the question that arises is “What is getting the most attention in our brains?” Because whatever gets the MOST attention will NOT get pruned!
It turns out, we actually have some control over what our brain decides to delete while we sleep.
If we spend a lot of time replaying an embarrassing moment at work, that’s what is going to get reinforced. Even if we’re thinking about figuring out solutions to that embarrassing moment or something else that is worrisome, such as how you’ll get through a big challenge like a heavy workload or a financial concern or some relationship conflict, those glial gardeners in our brain are going to see that those synapses have been used recently, and not prune them.
The problem is, if there’s a sense of Red Zone around the thoughts – like, yikes, this is a problem I’ve gotta solve – the neural connections of “PROBLEM DANGER THREAT” are getting reinforced in our brains.
The way out of that is to think about the things that will serve you in solving the problem. It’s a subtle shift from “YIKES, this situation is troublesome” to “HMMM, I can use my strengths to take this action” or “WOW, I’m grateful I’m mastering this new skill to take action.”
When we focus on the solution, not the problem, we can turn into a synaptic superstar!