Have you ever had your computer or your phone tell you you’ve run out of storage and can’t continue using it? You have to go in and delete your photos and other media to make room for new material. As it turns out, our brains work in a very similar way.
When we’re learning new things, our brains are building and then retracing new neural networks, building synapses (connections between neurons) to help you create and remember patterns and information.
As we practice these same patterns and review this information, our neurotransmitters travel pathways through the synapses and leave a trail; the more well-worn a pathway is, the better we get at doing or knowing that thing. As we’re first learning how to do something, our brain’s synapse pathway may be winding and disorganized, but as we practice, we get more efficient and our brain’s pathway for that action becomes smoother, shorter, and more streamlined. But how?
Sleep and Meditation Hold the Answer
While we sleep, whether it’s for a whole night or just a twenty-minute catnap, our brain’s microglial cells will come around and handily get rid of any synapses that are not well-traveled. Those pathways that are old and dusty are marked by our brain’s chemistry with a molecule that microglial cells recognize, and this molecule signals to them that these synapses are ready to be recycled.
This incredible capability of the brain to constantly self-regulate and make sure there’s enough room for new information and learning is fundamentally dependent on getting enough sleep. So this is the reason that when we’re sleep-deprived, we’re also foggy, sluggish to recall information, and slow to pick up new ideas!
(I guess it’s not just about drinking enough coffee to keep you upright). Deep meditation can provide a similar brain-tidying effect, allowing your brain a little time to recover and reorganize — although very little compares to a full night’s sleep.
Mindfulness and Your Brain's Pathways
Even if you may not have as much control as you’d like about how much sleep you get, you do have control over what pathways you keep when the neural garbage men come around. You just need to use the pathways that you do want to keep more than you use the ones you don’t!
This seems like an oversimplification, but it truly is a central tenet of mindfulness, and is harder than it sounds. Creating worn pathways takes conscious choice—stopping and choosing what to think about and how to think about it.
Spending more time contemplating the things that are really important to you will make sure they stay in your brain in a permanent, well-organized way. When confronted with a problem, do you choose to think about it via an anxious pathway or a calm pathway? When thinking about a change, do you choose a positive pathway or a negative pathway?
While emotions, personal brain chemistry, and the myriad neurotransmitters connected to the rest of our body play complex roles in the way that our brain pathways are formed and maintained, this tidbit of neuroscience gives us some small semblance of control over our mindset.
Every chance you get: stop, take a breath, and mindfully decide how you’d like to think about the situation, the relationship, or the choice in front of you. The thought really does count, and you always have a choice.