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Brains Are Funny Things

2008-01-29

Category: philosophies

Brains are funny things. No, I don't mean because they're all wrinkly and look humorous with plastic eyes glued to them. I mean funny in the interesting way, particularly the way they learn through repetition.

It has long been known that we learn by rote, the constant repeating of some information or task. This repeating process gives the brain a chance to build a worn-down path of thinking that is easy to walk on. Of course, brains are lazy and prefer to travel the easy paths.

This can be a very good thing. When studying for one's history exam it is good that constant exposure to the notable dates and happenings increases your likelihood of remembering those facts. I like the idea that my physicians remember al the bones and organs in my possessions without having to open me up and catalog them.

We use this fact constantly. In church the clergy repeat parts over and over again and often have the followers call back with the appropriate 'facts'. School children in the United States repeat the Pledge of Allegiance with no idea what it really means. Advertisers inundate us with a repeated slogan until we can chant it in our dreams. I left my short stay at an Air Defense base twenty years ago and still, on occasion, exclaim, "Whoosha!"

There is a bad side to this as well. If you have known any mentally ill people, you may have noticed a tendency to talk to them selves. Even when they talk to others there is a pattern in their speech. They reinforce their delusions by repeating the thoughts over and over again until that wrong thinking is the easiest path for the brain to take regardless of circumstance. In the worst cases, it is the only path. (NOTE: This is an over simplification to support the point of this article and does not apply to all mental illnesses.)

The other bad side of this behavior is that we tend to develop bad habits. Not all habits are bad, such as instinctively looking both ways before crossing a street, but some can be very bad indeed. Such habits can be very hard to break. Try coming home after work and not turning on the television. For some people that is not a worry. For others, leaving the television off would be nearly impossible.

Fortunately, there is a cure for the ingrained patterns. Unfortunately, it takes lots of time and effort and it can easily go wrong. The fix is to create new patterns. This is done through repetition of the new pattern materials.

The brain doesn't know the difference between real experiences and things you just tell yourself. If it did, you couldn't get yourself worked up over potential confrontation with your boss that will never happen. This is why people who repeat depressing things to themselves stay depressed. (Again, I know this is more complex, and there is no need for members of the psychology cult to gripe at me.) Much of the long-term cure involved getting the depressed person to think different things and engage in different, healthier activities.

You can also think different things and engage in different activities to get out of your own patterns. Simple things like tidying up around the house or rearranging furniture can cause a serious disruption to patterns. Going to different places and doing different activities will help as well. These changes can get one "out of a rut" without too much effort.

The brain can also be helped through repeating new phrase. We like to laugh at motivational posters because most of them are rather hokey. The idea behind them, however, is a good one. You can create your own motivational poster or note. It doesn't have to have pictures of kittens or sunsets, nor does it require an expression vacuous happiness. It just has to be something that will remind you of the new thought patterns.

Say, for example, that you are trying to remind your self to cut back on frivolous spending. You pick the phrase, "Don't Spend" as your new motto. You repeat this phrase to yourself often. To remind yourself, though, you may need a bit more. You can put the letters "D.S." on a card that you put in your wallet. You may set a similar note other places where you will see it often, such as on the television, the computer monitor, the refrigerator. You may even place on the dash board of your car.

In this example, you will see the little cards and your brain will play back what they stand for: Don't Spend! It will take time, but you may eventually build a habit of thinking that phrase when ever spending is an option. The result may be that you turn into a cheap bastard, a worthy goal for anyone!

The same idea can be used for other thought patterns. "Have you exercised today?" "Hug the kids and tell them you love them." "Democrats are whiny." "Republicans are evil." "Flying Spaghetti Monster is Lord." "I visit LibertyBob.com daily." You can eventually burn any thought pattern into your brain by repeating it often enough.

Yes, brains are funny things (even with little, plastic, googly eyes glued to them.) Neural patterns are fascinating, and rich in Calcium and Sodium ions. Most importantly, with the write repetition, and maybe some beatings, you can teach an old dog new tricks.


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