Pruning Neural Pathways

Someone asked me the other day why I listen to classical music – there are a host of benefits I won’t go into – primarily I’m pruning neural pathways I no longer wish to travel.  I’m consciously freeing up valuable components in order to practice presence-centred living.

When I’m in the car and the radio is playing popular music my mind tells a story for every song I hear; I was 15 years old when that song was in the Top 10; I was in love with Ben when I first heard that song; I quickly switch channels when the song is associated with painful memories

In those moments of what appear to be harmless enjoyment millions of signals were fired that led to feelings, and along with those feelings were impulses…. ‘Maybe I should just text to see if he still thinks about me?’  I wasn’t missing him, hadn’t thought about him in months, these weren’t real heart-felt feelings, they were a chemical reaction!  The body’s response… the body in the driver’s seat!  Surely this isn’t living life on my terms.

When we write a shopping list, we carry it to the shop, check off the items and recycle it when we’ve finished with it.  The neurons involved in that exercise were wired for usefulness; the hormones the brain released to support me in my activity wouldn’t have damaged my well-being.  The neural pathway created would be travelled again but it would likely serve it’s time with no significance attached.

Your favourite song, the one you danced to at your wedding; the one they’re playing on the radio now, has the potential to put a spring in your step or screw you up for the day, and you’re not always consciously aware of it.  The powerful moments in our life, the ones in which we felt strong feelings of love, hurt, betrayal…  Those moments created neural pathways much deeper than the one involved in creating the shopping list and the memories continue to release a cocktail of hormones – some good, some bad – every time we unconsciously indulge.

I like to visualise the mind and the thought process like a wide expanse of forestry commission land, you stop in front of the board in the car park and you look at the routes available to you, there’s the red 2 mile trail, the yellow 5 mile trail and then there’s lots of branches off into the longer green 15 mile trail.

The 2 mile trail is usually really muddy as the majority of people choose this one, it’s trodden into the landscape, we walk these two miles without noticing; we know the way.  The brain engages the same method we use to drive our car, we walk this route able to focus our mind elsewhere.   From the red route we have several options to branch off to the sunken garden, the waterfall etc.  Sometimes we walk those routes, at first they are new to us and we take in our surroundings, but walk them often enough and we’re soon back on auto-pilot.

The 5 mile trail is less muddy, we know the route, it’s an extra loop through the trees that winds high above the coast and affords a fantastic view from the top.  For the most part we can involve ourselves with matters in our head and fail to notice where we are; the trigger to bring us out of this state is the gap in the trees where the sun streaks through; it’s become a habit to look up at this point and give thanks for being alive.  We turn the corner, the moment of gratitude has passed and we resume internal processing!

The thought process that is accompanied by significant feelings, from elation to despair and everything in between is like the 2 mile trail, it’s firmly entrenched in the brain.  The same signals have fired millions of times before and the same chemical response has taken place, be it the release of stress hormones or feel-good, life-affirming hormones.   This path is so well travelled for the most part we don’t even realise when we’re walking it.

The 5 mile trail is much the same although there are still those moments when we realise we’re on it; just as the sun appearing through the trees reminds us to look at the view, we catch ourselves off on a tangent and consciously return.

The 15 mile trail is an adventure, it’s so peaceful, hardly anyone ventures onto that path, it’s great underfoot, in fact at times it’s hard to work out where to go next, you’ve got to pay attention as it’s not a route you’ve memorised.  It’s amazing how many new sights you can take in, the smells, the sound of your heart beating on the incline, the stones slipping underfoot on the decline.  You’re present in the moments that are unravelling and the experience is making your heart sing.  You want to throw your hands out in a gesture of pure appreciation for being alive.

So how does this love for life relate to pruning and my preference for classical music – there’s not one piece of music (yet) that I can associate with an event, therefore I’m just in my car and for the most part appreciating – I’ve associated this conscious choice of radio station with living life on my terms.   I can’t swear that my mind never wanders off but it is less likely to and I feel more available to life.

A song that evokes a feeling response takes me directly onto the red trail; providing it’s a positive memory that should be fine, the chemical response in the body is life-affirming after all.   But even happy memories can play havoc if they lead to bad life choices.   The memory of a perfect date with a past love has drowned me in feel good hormones and I’m swimming in a sea of possibilities – there’s not an element of truth in any of it but it plays out beautifully – I reach for my phone and hit dial, I opened Pandora’s Box and it wasn’t even a conscious decision!

The 5 mile trail is a better place for me to be, there’s always that reminder to come back to presence and appreciate what’s going on in the moment.  I’m hoping by pruning the connections – the audio and visual stimulations – I’ll spend only a bit more time there before walking a conscious existence on the green path.

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About Karen Shirlaw

Helping people fulfil their true potential and master resiliency.