The Biology of Beliefs (Book Snippet 9)

The brain’s development begins soon after conception, reaching around 90% of its adult volume by the age of six, but continues to undergo significant structural changes until the age of 21 years and more subtle processes of restructuring continue until we die. How our adult brain turns out is dependent on nearly an infinite number of variables. The two big factors determining brain development are nature (our biology) and nurture (our socio-cultural experience). Researchers continue to argue about the relative relevance of these influencing factors, but roughly speaking they each seem to account for about 50% of the variance.

At birth, humans are not able to communicate with language, and require years to develop an internal representation of self, which is necessary for conscious decision-making. But just because we don’t have conscious awareness of our thought processes at very early developmental stages does not mean that the experiences we have during this period are unimportant. On the contrary; our experiences during these early months are essential in the formation of our neurological pathways, and are retained as emotions as well as body memories, safely stored away for future reference in our muscles and cells.

Throughout our toddler stage, we deepen our emotional bonds with people close to us, experiment with relating to people in general, and learn to express ourselves emotionally. In interaction with our biology, the emotions and body-memories that we formed during infancy constitute the foundational brickwork for the future: we develop core assumptions about how relationships work, how we need to behave in order to survive and get our physical and psychological needs met and which emotions are safe and desirable, and which aren’t (see The Needy Iceberg for more information on needs)

By default, the human brain is equipped with an exceptional ability to think, make choices, and communicate. Despite our innate ability for logical thinking and communication, we act irrational, we argue, and we fight. All throughout history, humans have made decisions that led to the demise of thousands and thousands of people or that even had the potential to endanger the survival of our species.

Instead of investing in deepening our ability for self-awareness (to understand what is driving us) and enhance our communication skills in order to avoid costly conflict with others, most countries rather choose to invest a fortune into their arsenal of weapons.

The reason for this may be found in how we develop our brain, this ‘hardware’, during childhood and adolescence. By the time we are three years old, our brain has already reached approximately 80% of its adult size, but amazingly, has twice the number of synaptic connections as it will have by the time we reach adulthood.

Over time, superfluous synaptic connections are eliminated (a process referred to as blooming and pruning), leaving us only with those synapses that we use frequently. In other words, the more often we ‘practice’ a specific experience (made of thoughts, feelings and behaviours), the more likely we are to recreate this experience in the future. We effectively alter our hardware by strengthening the connections, which make a particular experience possible and by losing those connections that would favour another experience.

Thoughts, behaviours, and emotions that we engage in frequently create the equivalent of eight-lane highways in our body and brain. Axons that transport information between neurons like electric wires are, much like wires, insulated in order to improve efficiency.

But there is hope for us creatures of habit. The connections between our 86 billion neurons are not fixed. They have a built-in capacity for reconfiguring themselves — when stimulated to do so — in new and creative ways. This means that it is possible to un-learn old patterns and create new ones at any time (in neuroscience this phenomenon is referred to as use it or lose it). The way we direct our attention plays a central part in this process of re-wiring.

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