You Are Building Your Brain

What will you do with it?

Look at the shape of a rock. Pick it up and feel it with your fingers. Is it jagged? Round? Smooth enough to skip across a lake?

As a kid I’d spend hours rummaging along the lake shoreline at my grandparents’ house in Maine, digging for buried treasure and admiring the individuality of the rocks I’d find along the way. I’d make up stories and imagine where the rocks came from…maybe from the spooky island or from the very belly of the lake, where I was certain there was an underwater graveyard or two. How many miles did they travel, and what forces shaped them along the way? I loved knowing that the rocks were never “finished” even though they’d reached land. There was more change to come.

When you look out an airplane window at 10,000 feet, you can see yarn-like striations of rivers and estuaries: a pile of twisted Slinkies at the bottom of a staircase. The water shapes the earth: the earth gets no say in the matter. No vote.

Like water shapes the land and the rocks in the riverbed, so do our thoughts, behaviors, experiences and mental habits shape our brain.

Yes, we have the power to build our brain. You are doing it right now. It is not finished changing, and it will never stop changing until the warmth of life in your body takes a bow and quietly makes an exit.

This knowledge is both debilitating and empowering. Depending on what you feed your brain, how you use it and the tools and technology you allow to influence it, you’re essentially architecting how you process information and thus interact with other people.

This may sound like good news for the control freaks out there: You have some control over how your brain evolves over time. Our brains are “plastic” (i.e. movable, shapable, like clay) and building new connections and neural pathways each moment, with every experience and each thought. It is a continuous work in progress. You’re feeding it with your optimism, negativity, books, tv shows, social media, empathy, envy and technological tools.

Regarding the state of plasticity in our noggin, Nicholas Carr explains, “Our brains are constantly changing in response to our experiences and our behavior, reworking our circuitry with each sensory input, motor act, association, reward signal, action plan, or shift of awareness.”

Yet. There is a catch. Although we might feel more in control knowing we’re shaping our brain, much of this is happening outside of our consciousness. We’re bombarded with massive amounts of data, equivalent to approximately 11 million bits per second. This is a cognitive load we’re simply unequipped to deliberately process, so we rely heavily on our evolutionary, intuition-based mental autopilot: the unconscious mind.

This is why habits and people influence us more than we think,without our expressed permission or conscious input. “What we learn as we live is embedded in the ever-changing cellular connections inside our heads,” Carr says.

Everything you allow your mind to focus on, matters. Every positive or negative thing you allow yourself to believe about yourself, matters. Every habit is strengthening a connection in your brain.The habits you develop around social media and your phone matter. Our brains become wired for these experiences the more often we live them.

When we don’t force ourselves to stop and think slowly—more deliberately—we’re not applying all of our reasoning ability to our actions and words. We miss opportunities to identify biases and therefore optimize how we process information from the world around us.

Our best bet is to stop and ask ourselves one simple question: Why?

  • Why do I log on to social media?
  • Why do I think I’m not capable?
  • Why do I hide behind my phone?
  • Why do I dislike this person?
  • Why do I spend my free time doing this?

When you look at a mountain side from afar, it appears equipped to withstand the weather. But a drop of water here, one there, and then a few more…over time the drops turn into a pool, then a gentle stream, and then a current of water that imprints in the ground and chips away at the mountain, breathing into it a new shape and ultimately shaping the landscape.

Like the drops of water on a mountainside, how we allow ourselves to think builds neural pathways that become stronger and stronger with each drop, ultimately shaping us. These seemingly insignificant moments gradually build the lens through which we make decisions, treat other people and experience life.

This is why we need to carefully choose what we read, what we watch and how we spend our time online. We should also be mindful of filtering the voices we let in our head: Does what this person thinks of me truly define how I think of me? We’re feeding our brain and strengthening it one way or another.

Carr says, “Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind—over and over again.”

Your brain makes you uniquely human and uniquely you. But we only get one, and it’s as fragile as our earth’s landscape.

Build it as you wish.


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    Caitlin Vlastakis Smith

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    Listener, storyteller, advocate for human-centered design and sense-making. Imperfect writer, maker, and mother.

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