What's life without collective account of our experiences

We have always assumed, as a function of conditioning, that experience shapes changes in the brain's structure.

By Blake Griffin Edwards

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Published: Tue 18 Jun 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 18 Jun 2019, 10:40 PM

In his 1949 book Organization of Behavior, neuropsychologist Donald Hebb described how pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced through repetition. The more we do a particular action, feel a particular feeling, or think a particular thought, the stronger that neural network becomes, making the process more efficient over time.
We have always assumed, as a function of conditioning, that experience shapes changes in the brain's structure. What we must better understand is how, consequently, the behavioural processes involved in linking together neurons through synapse formation and modulation is, then, the very basis of memory and learning. Significant aspects of our existence result.
Yet, to be clear, it is not possible for us to logically unravel the complex sequences and feedback loops that constitute rigid and reactive cycles in our lives and relationships. We each face our own difficult battles, which is not an excuse but certainly a fair casting, and our emotions, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions are nearly inextricably linked.
Our lives are teeming with feedback loops with one thought, feeling, or action promoting another and secondary phenomena subsequently reinforcing the first. Stampedes are generated when psychological panic triggers physiological startle and when the physiological startle in one promotes panic in another, and so on. The dynamic of mutual reinforcement is common in the lives of human beings as well. There is a social positive feedback loop between beliefs and behaviour - if enough people believe that something is true, their behaviour can make it true, and observations of their behaviour may, in turn, increase belief. A classic example is a bank run. You may be more familiar with the phrase "self-fulfilling prophecy."
The pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James put it this way: "Could the young but realise how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar. Down among the nerve cells and fibres the molecules are.registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes. Nothing we ever do is, in strict scientific literalness, wiped out. Of course, this has its good side as well as its bad one.
But could there be a causal link between virtuous action now and virtuous action later? What if psychological growth, like market investment, appreciated with compounding interest - muster a small amount of courage or vulnerability, extend yourself generously for the sake of someone in need, and love, peace, patience, kindness, self-control and the rest would be more quickly forthcoming? Hebbian theory meets positive psychology?
The more we fear oblivion, the more we chase ambition, and regardless of the prizes we gain, deep anxieties propel our actions and our actions, our anxieties. Our heart hardens. Conversely, the more we embody acts of courage and bear others' burdens, the more our heart is enlivened. Each act which feeds integrity also increases my capacity for virtue.
Eventually it becomes more difficult for me to choose the foul rather than the virtuous action. On the other hand, each act of cowardice weakens me. Between the extreme when I can no longer do a wrong act and the extreme when I have lost all strength for right action, there are innumerable degrees. Vice sows compulsion, and virtue sows freedom. If the degree of freedom to choose the good is great, it needs less effort to choose the good. If it is small, it takes a great effort and favorable circumstances.
Our fears have ways of bracing us in anticipation, and anticipation has ways of fulfilling itself. Faith, hope, and love are more audacious yet no less fruitful. Ultimately, the science of neuroplasticity tells us that we have a significant degree of capacity to form new brain pathways throughout our lives. This also includes stimulating the growth of new neurons, the laying down of myelin for skill-formation, and the shaping of the epigenetic control molecules that influence future gene expression and the subsequent growth of neural structure. Believe me: that's all very good and encouraging news.
-Psychology Today
Blake Griffin Edwards is a licensed marriage and family therapist, behavioural health director in Washington State

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