In my work people often tell me that their anxiety or depression is genetic. But nothing could be further from the truth.
If you look at the image above, you will notice that there are tiny bud-like protrusions coming out of the neuron branch. These are called dendritic spines and with improved microscope techniques we now know that they are the material representation of learning and memory in our brains.
These ‘spines’ are not present in-utero and only start to appear a few days after birth as infants first begin to learn, consolidate, retrieve and organise their brains.
Dendritic spines are unbelievably amazing! They occur in brain areas where learning and memory flexibility is crucial, like the neocortex, hippocampus and cerebellum. Each neuron branch has hundreds of thousands of them. They are extremely flexible and pliable, and they can pop-up or retract back and ‘disappear’ into the branch (dendrite) depending upon whether or not we pay attention.
Paying attention seems to be the ‘switch’ that makes dendritic spines more likely to stay popped-up and try to make connections (synapses) with other neurons in the close vicinity. This phase roughly represents ‘learning’.
Paying more attention encourages dendritic spines to change from tiny, thin, weak protrusions (like hairs) into larger, more stable shapes containing more receptors (like door knobs or mushroom shapes). These receptors are involved in long-term potentiation or LTP which is part of long term memory consolidation. This phase roughly represents ‘consolidated’ memory.
If we continue to pay even more attention over weeks and months then we encourage more spines to pop-up nearby as well as down-stream, leading to large populations of synapses ‘devoted’ to specific content. Each spine is an independent entity that can ‘vote’ through its input capacity to influence its neuron to ‘fire’ and thereby influence other down-stream neurons to pop-up their dendritic spines.
When we get large populations of dendritic spines devoted to similar ‘themes’ then we are more likely to ‘retrieve’ their content and have a thought break through into consciousness and ‘pop-into’ our minds. We are also more likely to have other related mentations (like sensations, feelings, images or memories) appear to ‘pop-into’ our minds.
The content of these mentations, will be dependent upon what we have been devoting our attention. If we pay attention to mathematics or sports physiology we will have lots of maths and sports physiology mentations pop-into our minds. If we have been paying lots of attention to learning languages we will have lots of grammar and syntax mentations pop-into our minds.
On the other hand, if we have been paying lots of attention to ‘learning’ anxious or depressive or addiction ruminations we will have many mentations pop-into our minds about these themes.
When we have repetitive themes pop-into our minds over time we start to perceive them as part of who we are. I’m a ‘maths’ person, or I’m a ‘linguistics’ or ‘sports’ person, or I am an ‘anxious’ or ‘depressed’ person. Subjectively, this feels like our ‘identity’ as though we have always been this way.
But actually, we haven’t always been anxious or depressed or good at maths – we had to ‘learn’ them all by paying them significant attention.
By the same token, if we prefer, we can at any stage in life simply decide to stop paying attention to any ‘unwanted’ themes. When we stop paying attention, our synapses atrophy quickly and break apart and the highly pliable dendritic spines simply retract back into their dendrites, disappearing and losing their capacity to ‘vote’ and influence.
Without the regular practice of paying attention we quickly (within days and weeks) start to ‘forget’ our unwanted themes – and they become like distant memories!
Instead, we can decide to pay attention to other ‘themes’ that serve us better and these will equally become part of who we are – with some practice at paying them attention.