In a recent article entitled, “Your Brain Has a Delete Button—Here’s How to Use It”, the authors, Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane, talk about research that’s been done on the presence and function of the brain’s “microglial” cells that are the “gardeners of the brain”. These cells prune and remove synapses while we sleep. Most importantly, they remove those synapses we don’t use very much. In fact, the brain marks the unused synapses with a protein that signals the microglial cells to go ahead and prune them.
Because all self-talk is self-hypnosis, and because where we focus our thinking activates the synapses related to these thoughts, it behooves us to be mindful about where we’re spending our internal self-talk time. One example in the article is this:
“If you’re in a fight with someone at work and devote your time to thinking about how to get even with them, and not about that big project, you’re going to wind up a synaptic superstar at revenge plots but a poor innovator.”
They go on to say:
“To take advantage of your brain’s natural gardening system, simply think about the things that are important to you. Your gardeners will strengthen those connections and prune the ones that you care about less. It’s how you help the garden of your brain flower.”
The article also stresses that this pruning process happens when we’re sleeping, so giving ourselves adequate sleep and taking naps supports a healthy brain, which can be a challenge in a busy life, not to mention the shifts around sleep that happen in an aging body. For me, it’s important not to stress about this but, instead, to do what I can and, importantly, to track where my thinking goes and what kind of thoughts I want to nurture.
For this week’s practice in conscious living, I invite you to be even more aware of the tone and quality of your customary self-talk. Remembering that this is self-hypnosis can remind you that you are actively programming yourself, which has an effect on the quality of your internal experience. With the above research, you can also remind yourself which synapses you are strengthening and you can ask yourself if this is what you want to do.
Some people choose to have as their ongoing self-talk a kind of mantra (which can be a kind of ongoing self-talk/self-hypnosis) as home base. For example, spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, uses as one of his mantras, “I am loving awareness”. He says this to himself as he breathes out. Others have used a mantra, “All is well”. These forms of self-talk act as positive self-hypnosis and strengthen the synapses related to them. When I catch myself in some negative or fear-based thought, I go back to my heart space, breathe in and out a few times, and remind myself of things for which I am grateful. Let yourself find what works best for you, with the intention to help yourself move away from self-defeating or other forms of unsupportive self-hypnosis.
As with all these practices, there’s really no right way to do this one. Instead, it’s an invitation to notice your habits of thought, recognizing that these habits actually physically affect your brain and make you more prone to return to them because of the way in which they reinforce your synapses.
We all have not-so-helpful habits of thought, and our current Western cultures tend to support focusing on and reacting to the negative dramas that unfold around us all the time. While this is natural, it seems that we have developed a habit of overlooking, or not being interested in, things that are going right. When we think of which synapses are being pruned while we sleep, it seems to me we wouldn’t want to lose those that orient to what’s going right.
The article uses the metaphor of “gardeners” when talking about the function of glial cells. Drawing on this metaphor, I invite you to think about what kinds of “flowers” you want to cultivate and nurture in your garden of the mind. What you have in your garden vividly affects your perspective, the tone of your emotional life, and what you expect.
As with all these practices, please remember to bring along curiosity as your constant companion and to pat gently on the head any judgments that may arise, allowing them to simply move on through…