When I was young, my parents occasionally threw what they called an “Ugly Food Party.” The concept (patently my father’s brain child) was a potluck, to which each guest should bring a dish that was both delicious and ugly. The more delicious, and the uglier, the better. At the end of the evening, a first, second, and third-place winner would be announced. Memorable dishes ranged from the cartoonish (bean dip served in a diaper) to merely unusual-in-my-neighborhood (a whole sheep’s head). One was an opaque greyish jello served in a brain mold.
It was the jello brain mold that got me here, because this is how my actual brain works: I came here to write about neuroplasticity, which is to say, brain molding, hence brain mold, hence ugly food party. My brain did this little hopscotch in about four seconds. This is, perhaps, why I am almost constantly distracted.
Speaking of habits of the mind, neuroplasticity has been on my mind lately because I just finished reading The Brain That Changes Itself, which I would highly recommend. Dr. Norman Doidge writes accessibly about how the brain works, and the history of our growing understanding that the brain is constantly changing and adapting. Our thoughts and behaviors quite literally physically change the brain, because the brain adapts the tasks we put it to frequently. Thoughts we often think together become physically linked, until we make a conscious effort to disentangle them.
The book is full of fascinating examples of people who have been through tremendous physical or emotional trauma, and whose brains have adapted incredibly to overcome it, often with the help of therapy. The final chapter is about a woman who was born with literally only half of her brain (the other half never developed, after some unknown trauma in utero), and yet she was able to read, speak, and socialize, and was excellent at some kinds of math. Her half-brain had adapted to work as a whole one, finding space for all of her needs.
To summarize the conclusion of the book: you get better at what you practice. This is not what you might call groundbreaking. But to understand that it is true on a physical, neurological level is pretty amazing. Like a muscle, the brain becomes competent at, and then efficient at, doing what is repeated–whether these habits are harmful or helpful.
The book came out over a decade ago, and straddles the market between popular science and self-help. It offers very little in the latter category, but it is popular in those circles no doubt because it provides such a clear illustration of what needs to be done to improve oneself. Self-improvement on the order of increasing positivity, decreasing anxiety, or improving at an artistic task, begins to look like a physical reality, like straightening one’s posture or practicing piano scales. The prescription may remain the same as before (do more of the thing you want to do; do less of its opposite), but the explanation for why this helps makes it feel a little more tangible.
Even as I’m writing this now, I’m imagining my brain getting just that much better at associating the motor skills and verbal skills together that are needed to type while I think. And on a larger scale, I think back to a few weeks ago when I first decided to start this blog. At first, I had one or two ideas. Then, as soon as I articulated the thought to myself, “I will have a blog,” before I knew it I had quite literally dozens of ideas listed in a document. The neuroplastic explanation for that might be that even in imagining writing in this format, my brain strengthened the pathways between thoughts. I’m drawing connections between things, and drawing connections between those things and the ideas and actions of writing them down, more quickly and efficiently. It’s just practice. It’s picking what you like, and seeing how it grows, on a neurological level. It’s pretty neat.
Yesterday, I listened to a recent episode of the “Typology” podcast, which is about the Enneagram. The guest was Dr. Richard Lindroth, a 5 who was willing to come on the show. (Type 5 is the “observer” or the investigator.” They are typically introverted and analytical, both of which traits might explain why it would be the rare 5 who would want to come talk about him- or herself on a podcast about something rather woo-woo like the Enneagram). Dr. Lindroth quoted the famous statistician George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” and that is precisely how I think about the Enneagram. I decided I quite liked him.
He also struck me by mentioning neuroplasticity in connection with the Enneagram (about ten minutes into the interview). As a 5, one of his struggles is in allowing himself to feel his emotions. His inclination is to tamp them down and think them, rather than to feel them. Since learning about the Enneagram, he says:
“One of my practices for the last couple of years has been to reduce that distance [between myself and my emotions]…When I am experiencing an emotion [I] take the time and really experience it in the moment, hold it in my head and really experience it for 20 seconds. That’s my neuroplasticity rule…If I can engage with this thought or engage with this emotion for 20 seconds, it’s going to help rewire my brain to accommodate emotions probably in a more healthy way.”
The imperfect model of the Enneagram can hold up a mirror, showing us aspects of ourselves that we had no idea were unusual. Learning that we do these things (and not everyone does, and we needn’t keep doing them), can point out some areas where we can constructively change and grow. Thinking about this in the context of neuroplasticity, one might say that the brain of someone deep in their Enneagram type has grown and adapted and developed efficient patterns of that type: Dr. Lindroth has learned to distance himself from his emotions, and I have learned to associate conflict with danger, and to shut down at the first sign of it.
But by noticing that our brains have that habit, and by imagining doing things differently, and by engaging for 20 seconds with an emotion or by staying mentally present when interpersonal things get rough, we can start to weaken the associations our brain has made, and to strengthen new ones.