Image by Tamily Weissman, Jeff Lichtman, and Joshua Sanes: neurons in the neocortex
Or...is it confetti at your high school dance?...
In a fascinating post on his NPR science blog, Krulwich describes the way a moment of import (and the image of it) will imprint itself on your brain, creating connections that will form a map for your future decision-making and personality development:
"So suppose I'm at a high school dance and I see a beautiful girl across the room, and I ask a friend, "Who is that?" And the friend tells me, "That's Maria."
Remember what happens to Tony in West Side Story? When he first hears her name, his brain starts to pulse "Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria..." It's the most beautiful sound he's ever heard.
A neuroscientist would guess that at this very moment, Tony's brain cells are changing shape, literally growing branches, firing messages that represent bits and pieces of Maria. As they fire, their tentacles are multiplying, getting fatter, their signals getting stronger, and a pattern is forming across tens of thousands of brain cells, all pulsing a message that to Tony feels like all the beautiful sounds of the earth in a single word...say it now, say it loudly...
Or, if you're not into Broadway musicals, let's say Tony's brain has created a neuronal pattern. Every time Tony thinks of Maria (which is constantly) cells in his head are linking themselves more tightly together: Maria has re-wired his brain."(Krulwich)
So, now I (Tony) am walking around with a snapshot of the event described above by Krulwich in my brain, which to me is related to:
Maria, a broadway song I've just composed in my head, the longest note on my favorite instrument, the evening of a certain high-school dance, the guy who told me her name, the last time I went anywhere with that guy and the things that happened then, something seemingly insignificant which stands out to me about redheads, because he's a redhead, money--because his last name is Feurchace, which sounds like purchase--though i've never made that connection consciously--the color burgundy, which is the dress she's wearing, and so red wine, and the things that were said the last time I drank red wine, and the weather on that night, and the weather on this night, and the particular smells in the gym......right? So this never-ending game of free-association (I say tomato, the first word you think of is trench coat) is all subconsciously wired in to that image, the picture of that moment in a high-school gym and everything that came after and everything that led up to it (now seen as cause and effect). Your brain constantly refers to that image whenever presented with any new information, any situation it needs to respond to, etc, because it's an oft-used image and the more we fire together, the more we wire together. Every time we go back to that image, new connections are made, meaning that image grows in meaning, even though it's still just the image of me looking across the room to see Maria as her name is said on a certain sweaty, nervous high-school dance night. (See the whole map of the patterns in which your neurons fire together overlaid with this image.)
Here's where it gets really heady: remember that your main connections and patterns are all pretty muh decided (unless you do serious conscious work later) by your pre-5-yr-old mind. So, the image that's being created here is just an update of the one you already have, with more potent language and color. But it's a great moment for you to make a huge change, for a monster paradigm-shift. If you bust out of your normal behavior and do something really crazy, here, and follow it all the way to its conclusion, you may find yourself remembering your own life history up to this point completely differently. Your life-story no longer leads up to the "pinnacle" it did five minutes ago, at which time you never imagined yourself ditching your straight-As and list of after-school activities and campus presidential duties to grab her hand, catch a plane, and move to the Andes to train to be a curandero. All of a sudden, you remember things you had completely forgotten, things that obviously were leading up to a moment like this, things that make it clear that you were born for the life of an Andean curandero. There was that amazing time in your grandmother's garden, when she was showing you the most beautiful flower you'd ever--in your 4 short years on this planet--seen, and at the same time, a group of children next door were practicing a song in Spanish for a school play. There was that one time your father took you to the mountains to go camping, momentarily breaking from his otherwise completely work-obsessed life, the only time you traded more than three complete sentences. There was the time your mom danced you around the room in her burgundy evening gown the night she won an award for her work in the laboratory, and she was singing "I feel pretty" and you were blushing and happy. All these things had previously been forgotten, but you begin to remember them on the plane, with the love of your life sitting next to you, pointing eagerly at the shape of the clouds out the window to show you a grazing horned goat. When you land, you discover you have an amazing talent for locating mysterious and rare plants, and that she has the equally miraculous ability to make them all taste good. People line up for your cures. Why are you so good at this? Because your whole life was leading up to it, you were born to be this! Somewhere in the back of your mind, you've always been singing that Broadway tune, and you still are, right now as you search through the forest for the herbs. What made you think you were going to be a lawyer? Who knows?
You were fated to be this. But only since the moment you decided to be fated to do it, the moment that one snapshot became your life's map. At that moment (just like when you're dreaming, and whatever you're doing right then makes sense in the story of your life; yes, you're re-taking the third grade even though you already passed your college exit exams, but third grade is important, and it's always been this way), your present changed, your history changed, and your future changed.
And in the next moment, it can again.
--PART ONE HERE--
--PART ONE HERE--