Aaah, yes. The cornerstone of any important gathering, holiday party, birthday celebration, office meeting… you get the picture. The sites, smells and tastes of a favorite dish are liable to make anyone smile and hum with delight.
But what about food for thought? Literally.
A few months ago while reading my physiology textbook, I came across a passage that gave me a stroke of insight. In its dense scientific jargon, the passage described the survival mechanism by which neural pathways in the brain are maintained- via neurotrophic factors secreted by neurons and glial cells (i.e. cells of the brain).
So to back up a moment beginning with neural pathways, what are they exactly and why do I care whether they survive?
I like to use running water as a metaphor to describe these pathways, which are in essence, the physical connections between neurons in the brain.
Think about water flowing down a stream on a hillside. The stream, although perhaps a lovely find, is likely narrow, shallow and weak. Not much to see here!
Now imagine a river- it’s wide, deep, and depending on the time of year, contains waters that are dangerously strong.
Each person’s brain is a network of neural pathways. Neurons (the basic functional unit of the brain) make connections with other neurons to create these pathways (you can also imagine this network as a web). These connections give us the ability to use language, remember names, drive cars and think all of the tens of thousands of thoughts each of us has in a single day.
As described with the running water metaphor, some of these pathways are very weak. Have you ever tried to sing along to an old favorite tune, only to find yourself mumbling the lyrics in perfect pitch? The reason for your butchering is due to pathways that, although still survive, are very weak. You can think about it as a sort of neuronal atrophy.
Following that same logic, think of something that you do on a daily basis, for example driving your route to work. The neural connections here are strong. So strong that you probably don’t even think about what you’re doing while you’re doing it.
So, if using language, remembering names, and how to get places in a car are things that one values, it’s safe to say that the survival of these pathways is important; and if their survival is dependent upon neurotrophic factors, I’d better get me some of those!
Now that we’re familiar with neural pathways (what they are and why they’re important) lets learn about the neurotrophic factors that feed and sustain these pathways. And in the true spirit of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, we must begin with the origin of the word, neurotrophic.
Neuro comes from the Greek word neuron, which means sinew and is defined as “the parts of a structure… that give it strength and bind it together.” Next, trophic comes from the Greek word trophikos, which means to nourish. And lastly factor, is a “circumstance or fact that contributes to a result or outcome.”
Do you see where this is going?
Our brain cells secrete chemicals that literally FEED (and therefore strengthen) the trillions of neural connections in our brains! The same connections that empower you and me to do all of the things we do, everyday.
Can you even? Because I can’t!
You might be asking yourself, how is this practical information? So what if my brain releases chemicals that helps it survive? I kind of already knew that!
And maybe so!
Which leads me to my final point… my stroke of insight.
Many years ago I heard a Native American story, called Two Wolves. In the tale, a grandfather tells his grandson a story about the human condition. He described that within each and every person there is a war that goes on- a war between two wolves. He told his grandson that one of the wolves is angry, bitter, jealous, ego driven and unforgiving while the other is loving, kind, compassionate, honest and faithful. The boy pondered this for a moment and resigned to ask his grandfather, “which wolf wins?” And the grandfather, in all of grandfathery wisdom, replied, “the one you feed.”
So what does this all mean?
The way I see it is, when a person sets out to make a change in their life, whether it be breaking a bad habit or developing a new perspective, real sustained change happens at the level of the brain; it happens at the level of neural connections. We have to feed the good wolf (i.e. constructive habits, healthy perspectives, etc.) in order to strengthen the connections we want, and starve the connections that we don’t.
How do we create new neural connections in order to facilitate change at this level? By experiencing things that are novel! How do we strengthen healthy neural connections that already exist? By continuing to do and practice the things that work for us!
Our brains change when we break out of our routines and tweak them, just a tad. We can’t change our brains by thinking “positive thoughts”, but we do so by practicing the habits, qualities and characteristics that we desire to have come naturally to us.
So there you have it. Neural connections are important. Their survival depends on being fed. Some of our neural pathways are weak (because we don’t use them) and others are strong (the ones that we use everyday). We can create new, healthy neural connections by trying new things and strengthen existing connections by continuing to use those pathways.
What’s our job?
Practicing the habits that we want our life to be about. Because after all, which wolf will win?
The one you feed.