As of lately, a new theory on learning is becoming popular in scientific circles. So far, we’ve known that ‘practice makes perfect’ or the more you practice a skill, the better you acquire it. Or, as the popular axiom in neuroscience goes “neurons that fire together wire together,” meaning the more you run a neuro-circuit in your brain, the stronger it becomes.
However, mounting evidence emerges that in order to learn something, it’s more important to unlearn or erase old information from the brain than to practice it. The new theory is known as “synaptic pruning”.
THIS IS HOW IT WORKS:
The brain quite resembles a garden in the way it functions. Instead of flowers, fruits and vegetables that normally grow in a garden, the brain grows synaptic connections between neurons, the same connections that neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and others travel across.
The brain has its gardener as well represented by the “glial cells.” Some of these cells speed up the signals between certain neurons, while others remove waste, i.e. pull up weeds, kill pests, or rake up dead leaves. The pruning gardeners of the brain, which prune the synaptic connections, are known as “microglial cells.” But, the important question is how they know which synaptic connections to prune.
So far, researchers have come with a thesis that less used synaptic connections are marked by a protein, C1q. So, once the microglial cells detect this mark, they bond to the protein and prune, or destroy, the synapse.
It’s in this way that the brain creates the physical space for new and stronger synaptic connections, i.e. new information.
THIS IS WHY SLEEP MATTERS:
Sleep is essential for overall health, including brain health. In fact, just like the other organs, the brain too cleans itself during sleep.
The thing is the brain builds lots of new connections when we learn new things, but most of these are inefficient. Therefore, the brain eliminates some of these connections in order to build more streamlined and efficient ones. This happens during sleep when the brain cells reduce in size by up to 60% so as to create space for the glial gardeners to eliminate the waste, or to prune the synapses.
The process quite resembles running fragmentation on a computer. That’s why you wake up from a good night’s sleep thinking clearly and quickly.
The same happens with naps. Even a short 10-20 minute nap enables the microglial gardeners to eliminate some unused connections, and make space for new ones.
Sleep deficiency, on the other hand, leads to dense and slow synaptic connections, which prevents clear thinking and reasoning.
THIS IS HOW YOU CAN CONTROL WHAT GETS DELETED FROM YOUR BRAIN:
As mentioned above, the less used connections are marked for recycling by a protein. As opposed to these, the used ones are those that you often think about. In other words, your brain preserves the connections you spend most time thinking about. So, you can virtually craft your mind by choosing what to pay attention to.
While it’s true that you can’t control the things that happen to you, you can control how much it has an impact on you. In other words, you can choose WHAT occupies your mind and build your own neural connections.
Knowing that you have the power to control your brain function and use your mental energy toward things that benefit you, instead of focusing on things that hold you back, is really empowering.
To sum up, if you want to delete something from your memory, just stop thinking about it, or change your focus from it whenever reminded. This information will sooner or later be marked for recycling.