The Snowy Paths of the Brain

Imagine a scenario in which there is a steady snow. In this hypothetical, the snow never stops and it has already accumulated several feet on the ground. In this place you have a house, a barn with animals, and a woodshed.

Imagine it is a day filled with the regular chores of a house and barn in Vermont. The first time you trudge out to the barn in the morning it’s hard to blaze the path through the thigh-high snow, but as you go out again and again—to feed the animals, to give them water, to collect eggs, to clean out the stalls—the path becomes more packed and easier to travel with each pass. Even though it’s snowing, the path between your house and the barn stays well-groomed because you travel it so often.

Now, imagine you have to get wood for the woodstove. You start down the well-defined path to the barn and, then, veer off into the snow to go to the woodshed. The first time you go to the woodshed, it’s a tough slog through deep snow. Subsequent trips are easier. You only need to get wood once over the course of the day, even though it took you many trips to get it, so hours after collecting the wood the trail you made is starting to disappear under fresh snow. By bedtime, the path has completely disappeared because you didn’t retravel it that day.

The pathways in your brain are like the trails between the buildings on the snowy property described above (credit for this analogy goes to my anatomy and physiology professor this semester, Dr. Matt). As children, we are building many pathways while at the same time eliminating unused pathways. The amount and rate of forming new pathways and connections in the brain slows with age but, even when we’ve lived long enough to be wise, our brain continues to reshape itself. The formation of new pathways, strengthening of others, and pruning (eliminating) of infrequently used routes in the brain is called “neuroplasticity.”

Neuroplasticity, the resiliency and reshaping of our brain, is one reason researchers worry so much about children who don’t have access to many learning opportunities or live is stressful family situations. These experiences, or lack of experiences, shape the children’s minds for the rest of their lives. It’s easier to be ready for the learning done is school, if before you start your brain is used to hearing stories and practicing words and math. It’s easier to be ready for more school and job responsibility if you were lucky enough to master elementary school. It’s easier to know how to be confident, happy, and kind if you’ve experienced those things many times.

Neuroplasticity is also part of the reason why drug addiction is considered a disease and is so difficult to beat—drugs can change the pathways in our brains. Once someone is addicted to drugs, their brain is literally wired to want, seek, and (even) need the drug to function normally. It’s hard to avoid a path you know well and that has become central to your existence. For example, how often do you change the route you take to work everyday?

Neuroplasticity is also more general in a way I find inspiring. To me, it’s evolution’s way of giving us one more reason to be hopeful. The idea that we can reshape our brains if we’re will to trudge enough times to forge a new connection is awesome. It’s also amazing that if we try hard enough to stop using a pathway, it will weaken. This gives us fantastic opportunity for life-long learning and self-growth. It means we can train ourselves to understand new things, act differently, and even alter our response to specific situations. It means that we can discard habits and build new ones if we are willing to put in the energy to tackle the snow of our mind. Life isn’t static and I find it inspiring that we (individuals) need not be either.