According to Israeli physicist Moshe Feldenkrais, “hurrying is bad for learning.”
How many of us hurry through our day ensuring that the garbage has been put out, the car has gas, the kids arrive at school on time, that we are appropriately attired and prepared for work, that dinner arrives on the table and that the laundry for the week is done?
Hurrying results in inattention and is characteristic of the multi-tasking life. It means we are not fully present in the moment because we are already half in the next moment. And when we live this way habitually, our neurons, which are habitually wiring together because they so often fire together; program hurrying into our daily habit pattern. If we are not hurrying, it starts to feel funny.
The problem with hurrying is it sends a signal to our sympathetic nervous system that it needs to pay attention, to be on guard. Cortisol and adrenalin levels go up and there we are in a heightened state of fight-or-flight again. This fight-or-flight state can be quite subtle. An example is the experience of speaking up at a meeting, sounding like we know what we are talking about when we are not entirely certain. Even a social encounter can put us into the stress zone if we are not ready for it.
Once elevated, we need soothing to calm ourselves. Any number of self-soothing measures are pressed into service: a coffee or tea, a snack, a break of some sort, self-talk, a walk, biting the nails, a cigarette. Well, you get it.
So many of our habits are efforts to calm ourselves and reduce stress. Often they are so deeply wired we don’t even really take notice.
When we are in an elevated state, our brain plasticity is heightened. Stress response is activated and our attention becomes highly focused. The limbic system, located at the top of the brain stem and in the centre of the cranium is already engaged, evaluating the emotional significance of events and comparing them to previous events so as to determine their threat value. Our brain is primed to encode and remember.
For example, a camping trip that, moments earlier, was full of fun and the smell of pine trees is now a terrible threat because of a mouse which runs up someone’s leg and freaks them out. Anything that moves quickly now startles them and draws a stress response. The individual is now triggered not just by swift moving small rodents, but by anything quickly moving and caught out of the corner of the eye. They calm themselves by having a snack or reading a book or curling up somewhere safe and so that self-soothing habit also gets special attention and also gets wired in. The trigger and the self-soothing, both wired in by a brain with heightened plasticity at a heightened moment of vigilant attention. Neurons that fire together, wire together.
The problem is we’re not engaging the benefit of our frontal lobe. The frontal lobe could tell us that the chances of a mouse running up our leg again are very low. Or that the mouse doesn’t really want to risk its life by running up our leg, Or that if we sit with our legs up and not on the ground we decrease the risk of attack. However, the frontal lobe is off line when cortisol and adrenalin are high.
So, now we know neuroplasticity helps us survive in a threatening world; but how does it help us learn new tricks? Stay tuned for Part 3 of Neuroscience and Everyday Living.