Have you ever thought about how we think?
Well, the science* will tell you that the human brain contains an estimated 100 billion neurons – or nerve cells – interconnected by trillions of connections, called synapses which act like chemical junction boxes. Electrical signals travel along threads, called axons, between the neurons. When the signal reaches the tip of the axon it causes the release of chemical neurotransmitters in the synapse which push the signal out to the target neurons. These target neurons respond with their own electrical signal which then spreads to other neurons. Within a few hundred milliseconds, the signal has spread to billions of neurons in dozens of interconnected areas of the brain.
Pretty exhausting stuff!
Since the beginning of 2021, I have been reflecting on how often my brain is in “thinking mode” and I came to the conclusion that my mind is whirring pretty much all of the time. Most of my waking hours (and sometime my sleeping ones) are spent thinking; and usually either reflecting on the past or concerning myself with the future.
Not one to rush into any New Year’s Resolutions, I decided around the middle of January to see if there was anything out there that I could engage with to start exploring my tendency to be anywhere but the present. I settled – perhaps as a result of my searches on this subject driving some targeted advertising – on Headspace which is a “guide to mindfulness for your everyday life.” I must have set up an account previously and was pleased to see that I could benefit from another free trial without even having to register a different email address!
And so it began.
On a daily basis, I have been popping in my earphones and working my way through the Basics course. Part of the meditation exercise – which is, by its nature, repetitive as it needs to be when learning something new – is to focus on just the breath and in doing so take a welcome break from thinking. Realising when one is thinking and just “noting” this fact before returning to the breath is still something that happens frequently to me during each session . I have a long way to go.
However, I am now 35 days and counting into this journey and have found that putting aside just 10 or 15 minutes each day to not think is reaping rewards. Not only am I able to better concentrate on what I am currently doing, I also feel more relaxed and am experiencing much better quality sleep. Most importantly, I feel more present when with those whom I love, enjoying the moment rather than being distracted with thought. I have signed up for a year so let’s see if I can keep this up!
It goes without saying that the sustained nature of the Covid pandemic has given us even more to think about than usual and so I wanted to share my experience with you in case you identify with anything I have written today and want to make a change.
Give your mind (and those neurons) a break!
*Thank you to Elizabeth Dougherty of MIT for putting this in simple enough language for me to understand! https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/what-are-thoughts-made-of/