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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    The Single Sheet of Paper

    October 18th, 2011

    In this short video I demonstrate an innovative, highly effective approach to engaging young people.

    I’ve been testing The Single Sheet for several years with a variety of age groups and messages. I’ve also helped organizations implement this method to increase engagement with their own messages. I recently filmed one of my presentations to demonstrate The Single Sheet in action. This video features highlights from that presentation.

    The Single Sheet process engages people at a deeper level with a wide range of important messages. During this presentation we discuss the prevention message, “Avoid the use of alcohol.”

    Know that the students’ thoughtful, insightful comments you see here are spontaneous. I didn’t prompt them to say anything.

    Post this link to your organization’s website and Facebook page and help broaden the conversation about the how we can better engage people.

    I’m grateful to my friend, a courageous educator, Heather Johnson, for furnishing her classroom, and to the students who participated!

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      Are you still making acorns?

      September 22nd, 2011

      I was out running yesterday when I came upon an enormous oak tree that was actively dropping acorns. I gathered a few in my hand and noticed for the first time the enormous contrast between a single, simple acorn and an elaborate, ancient oak tree.

      Simplifying the complex is a form of art that oak trees practice each year. In the course of a lifetime their ever-growing branches house generations of birds, squirrels, and tree forts. But each year they still produce simple, elegant acorns.

      Too often the way we communicate about a topic mirrors the complexity of our knowledge of the topic. As our knowledge grows we need the discipline to refine the complexity of our knowledge into its essential, most defining elements.

      This is how our knowledge grows more complex, according to George Loewenstein, behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University: we want to know more about what we already know. Through learning more about a topic we discover gaps in our knowledge. These gaps spike our curiosity and motivate us toward deeper understanding. In time, as we fill these gaps, our knowledge grows more elaborate and nuanced–like an oak tree.

      The resulting depth and complexity makes us a resource to others. Your physician, for example, is a resource to the degree that she seeks to fill gaps in her knowledge base. But her inability to communicate her topic in relevant terms prevents her from engaging her patients, a shortcoming that renders her less of a resource.

      The simplest, most refined presentation will draw people to your message and to you, the messenger. This discipline makes you and your message more accessible and engaging.

      As you grow into a tree remember to ask yourself, “Am I still making acorns?”

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