The trails in our brain: 7 things you should know

January 18th, 2012

Paths form where we walk. As depicted in this photo by Dutch photographer Jan-Dirk van der Burg, repeated travel over a piece of ground creates a path.

Our brain follows this rule as well. A substance produced in our brain called, myelin, is the brain’s version of packed earth. How does this happen? Neural sequences that fire together wire together. In other words, actions—what we do—form these myelin paths.

Knowing a little more about myelin can shape how you cultivate engagement and empathy, especially with youth:

1. Like a trail in our brain, myelin creates highly efficient pathways by coating neural sequences that we use. This process is called myelination.

2. The speed increase in signal transmission between neurons that result through myelination are like the difference between walking and traveling by jet.

3. Myelin allows our brains to regulate itself the same way we regulate speed in traffic by feathering the gas and break pedals to avoid getting into an accident.

4. Myelin is essential for inhibition: the ability to avoid or stop behaviors with negative consequences.

5. Lower rates of myelination in youth, especially males, helps explain the lack of inhibition that characterizes adolescence.

6. Overuse of alcohol and other drugs inhibits, and in some cases stalls, myelin production. Such substances are the equivalent of fencing off the path in the photo above. Eventually the path vanishes into its surrounding environment.

7. The adolescent brain is hyper-vulnerable to the use of drugs, including alcohol. During these years the brain is actively producing myelin that will expand the function and efficiency of the brain. Alcohol and other substances inhibit this process in adolescence than later in life.

A highly-accessible book on this topic is, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle. For a deeper dive, read this article about the relationship between myelination, alcohol use, and addictions. It’s fairly complex, but the research findings are truly stunning.

Research on myelin is a burgeoning new frontier, offering incredible insights about human behavior and relationships. I’m eager to see what new findings appear in the next few years.

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