Each moment is new and filled with hundreds of billions of bits of information, which our brains take in and process. What we actually “see” as our waking reality is less than 0.00000001% of all the information that comes through our eyes. How does our brain decide what to show us? And how does the brain respond to the constant influx of new information each moment? At first, the brain absorbs as much as possible; during the first decade of life the brain is like a fat dry sponge. Neurons are going nuts making as many connections as they can with new experiences each day. Neural connections form a distinct pattern, which serves as a blueprint for what we actually “see.” Out of all the bits of information we take in moment-to-moment and day-to-day the brain chooses to focus on what it determines to be most relevant to us based on our current connections. As we age, environmental stimulus and personal experience continue to shape our brains and thus becomes the reality we perceive.
As the cortex develops a young child-brain is stretched to its max. Eventually, around the age of ten a process called “pruning” begins, which means its time for the brain to get selective. The most emphasized and emotionally salient connections remain while insignificant (less impressive) connections go away. Pruning is a sign of brain maturation, and myelination of the cortex allows for more complex reasoning and mental ability. Myelination is the name of a process whereby brain cells are wrapped in protective and insulating structures enable more rapid movement of information through the brain; the brain is seen as more mature as more neurons are myelinated throughout the cortex and across left and right hemispheres. The pruning stage usually lasts through the teen years and overlaps with maturation of the pre-frontal cortex, which doesn’t fully mature until some time in the early twenties.
If childhood is a time of innocent play and taking it all in, then the pre-teen and teenage years are a time of increasing complexity and abstraction. I can remember the transition between elementary school and middle school: multiplication tables became algebraic equations; spelling tests became 5-paragraph essays; my friends started having sex! As I “grew up” I had no idea what my brain was doing, I was just doing the best I could to shine and succeed. I was completely blind to the paradigms and worldviews that were being programmed through group norms, cultural values, and ideals of “success.” All I knew was that girls thought I was cute, and getting straight A’s was the highest goal to reach.
Looking back on my upbringing in light of brain development helps me see how much I benefitted from my Mother’s wisdom. I distinctly remember when I won the petition to have my own room as far away from my brother as I could manage; I was 8. At 8 years old I was still experiencing neural exuberance, which is the time between ages 2-9 when the brain is making as many new connections as possible with all the new stimulus. Along with my new room came a nice new boom box, fit to play radio, cassette tapes AND CD’s. It took no time for my mom to insert “Mozarts Greatest Hits” into my CD player and press play after sending me off to bed and tucking me in each night. I was familiar with classical music from school and around the home during the winter holiday season and I liked it; however, listening to it at night was particularly enjoyable and sent me off to sleep with a type of ease I hadn’t experienced before. Maybe it was comforting to have its presence wash over the fact that my new room was the farthest back in the basement next to the boiler room, which made creepy noises at night. Most likely though, it was my brain experiencing the scientifically verified beneficial effects of classical music on the brain. Little did I know how the repeated performance of Mozart’s symphonies would shape my brain to develop more completely and coherently. My mother knew exactly what she was doing.
Eventually the smoothness turned rough, as toxins entered my eyes, ears, lungs and stomach on a daily basis. Digestion is not just food-based – food comes in through all senses. We are what we experience, and the brain changes with every meal. Growing up in Central Jersey –in the New York metro area— tended to be fast-paced, cut-throat, and uber-competitive. Being a teenager in that part of the world demanded a lot from my brain, especially the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for creative problem solving, abstract and moral reasoning, value judgments and sense of self. As I grew through adolescence I made many a poor decision, including frequent under- age drinking, lack of sleep, and recreational drug abuse. I remember my first few experiences smoking weed; I had so much fun in this altered state of consciousness, where the boundaries and limitations of the paradigms I had learned melted away like butter on a hot biscuit…to say nothing of how the improved taste of the biscuit. Drinking and smoking on the weekends and sometimes during the week often felt like the best thing to be doing, despite the importance of school, sports and other extra curriculars.
At first, the novelty of altered states served a clearly positive purpose – they opened my mind to the mystery of life. Getting “out of my mind,” especially with marijuana, caused me to question the reality and “facts” that I had been fed; I didn’t start rejecting everything, but I became skeptical. My mind was opened to the reality that there is more to be discovered than meets the eye and that life is about more than fitting into “the system.” As time went on, the effect of recreational drugs got dull but my use got more and more frequent! I was drinking and smoking more and getting less out of it, but for some reason I couldn’t convince myself to stop or slow down. After all, “everyone is doing it!” I realize now that a little brain part called the nucleus accumbens had a lot to do with my addiction. The nucleus accumbens is the “pleasure center” of the brain, which tells the brain when an experience is good for life and signals to have more of that experience. When the novelty of altered states, medicinal benefits of the herb, and associated social fun began, the nucleus accumbens determined more of that would be good! Unfortunately drugs sneak by its discernment, which accounts for the abusive habit that developed from the recreational use. When I graduated from high school I was doing well and off to a good university but toxins filled my system and the predictable college party scene became the first class on my schedule.