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Many of us will be relieved to learn that the old neurological paths are being constantly ‘pruned’ by our mind. Use it or lose it!

There’s an old saying in neuroscience: neurones that fire together wire together. This means the more you use certain neurological paths in your brain, the stronger they become and the harder it is to break them. In this sense, our neurological paths act as our ‘brain roads’. Like with any road, the more people use it, the wider and more prominent it becomes. That’s why practice makes perfect. The more we practice our ‘creative muscle’ or engage in the same behavioural responses, the better we become at it. Indeed, some of us have excelled in ‘doing’ our problem over and over again.

But what happens when we ‘abandon’ some of our neurological paths? Many of us who work towards breaking away from old habits will be relieved to learn that, just as certain paths are reinforced, the old neurological paths are being constantly ‘pruned’ by our mind. Use it or lose it! The process is called “synaptic pruning,” and here is how it works.

Your Brain Has ‘Delete’ Button

Your Brain is Like a Busy Infrastructure
Imagine your brain is a busy infrastructure of a major capital city. Except instead of highways, pathways, roads and narrow passageways, you build synaptic connections between neurones. These are the connections that serve as routes for neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and others. Like any roads, your synaptic connections are being constantly maintained.

“Glial cells” are the maintenance agents of your brain. They act to speed up signals between certain neurones. But other glial cells are the removers of misused pathways, planting green gardens and grass where the pathways are no longer used or needed. Your brain’s ‘gardeners’ are called microglial cells. They are the ones who prune your synaptic connections. The question is, how do they know which ones to prune?

Researchers are just starting to unravel this mystery, but what they do know is the synaptic connections that get used less get marked by a protein, C1q (as well as others). When the microglial cells detect that mark, they bond to the protein and destroy–or prune–the synapse.

This is how your brain makes the physical space for you to build new and stronger connections so you can learn more.

Sleep Matters

We are all familiar with the feeling of having a ‘clear head’ after a good night’s rest. That’s because all the pruning and pathway-efficiency that took place overnight has left us with lots of room to take in and synthesise new information.

Have you ever felt like your brain is full? Maybe when starting a new job, or deep in a project. Well, in a way, your brain actually is full. Here is what happens: when you learn new things, your brain builds connections. Not all of these connections are useful and your brain needs to prune a lot of those connections away and build more streamlined, efficient pathways – straight highways from A to B, if you wish. Our brain works it out when we sleep.

The brain cells shrink by up to 60% to create space for your glial cells to prune the synapses.

We are all familiar with the feeling of having a ‘clear head’ after a good night’s rest. That’s because all the pruning and pathway-efficiency that took place overnight has left us with lots of room to take in and synthesise new information.

Thinking with a sleep-deprived brain is like hacking your way through a dense jungle with a machete. It’s overgrown, slow-going, exhausting. The paths overlap, and light can’t get through. Thinking with a well-rested brain is like wandering happily through a well-kept park; the paths are clear and connect to one another at distinct spots, the trees are in place, you can see far ahead of you. It’s invigorating.

Focus On The Things You Want, Not The Things You Don’t

Wish boards, visualisation, planning and goal setting are all worth including in your arsenal if you too want to do your brain a favour and help to prune these unused neurological paths.

If you wonder whether you can impact what synapses are getting pruned, you are right. It’s the synaptic connections you don’t use that get marked for recycling. Human beings have fascinating ability to forget information that is to used or useful to hold on to.

The synaptic connections you do use are the ones that get reinforced every time. So the quickest and easiest way to influence this process is to actually focus on things that are important to you. In other words, focus on the things you want, not the things you don’t!

A lot of people benefit from various hacks that allow us to stay focused on the things we want. Vision boards, visualisation, planning and goal setting are all worth including in your arsenal if you too want to do your brain a favour and help to prune these unused neurological paths.

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