Silence is a source of great strength.
– Lao Tzu
As we enter 2017, and are setting our goals and intentions, one intention that I am setting for myself is to give myself the gift of more silence.
Do you get enough silence in your life? Time for quiet reflection and time to let your brain have a bit of downtime?
Research shows that sleep and silence are much more important for our brains than we imagined. One of the main reasons we need more silence and sleep is to allow time for the brain to cleanse itself.
We all have lots of negative, limiting beliefs that exist in our brains. One of the best ways to stop these beliefs from having free reign is to stop focusing on them and focus on something positive instead. But once we are able to stop focusing on them, how does the brain get rid of those negative thoughts that exist in old neural pathways?
“Imagine your brain is a garden, except instead of growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables, you grow synaptic connections between neurons. These are the connections that neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and others travel across. ‘Glial cells’ are the gardeners of your brain — they act to speed up signals between certain neurons. But other glial cells are the waste removers, pulling up weeds, killing pests, raking up dead leaves. Your brain’s pruning gardeners are called “microglial cells.” They 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.”
Perhaps you are not as interested in the science, so suffice it to say, that the more we use a neural pathway, the stronger it becomes. But the opposite is also true, when we use it less, it gets weaker. But then the brain needs time to do some clean up, getting rid of the old synaptic pathways. Our brains need time to prune a lot of those old connections away and build more streamlined, efficient pathways. It does that when we sleep. Our brain cells shrink by up to 60% to create space for the glial gardeners to come in take away the waste and prune the synapses. We actually have some control over what our brain decides to delete while we sleep. It’s the synaptic connections that we don’t use that get marked for recycling. The ones we do use are the ones that get watered and oxygenated. So be mindful of what you’re thinking about, be mindful of what you are mindful of. Replace the negative with something positive. Be conscious of what you focus on.
There is a saying in neuroscience that neurons that fire together wire together. This means the more you run a neuro-circuit in your brain, the stronger that circuit becomes. Rick Hanson explains this well in his article in Greater Good. Hanson explains that ‘You can change your mind, to change your brain, to change your mind for the better!’
Finally, how do we strengthen the neural pathways that we want to keep? Research shows that silence, meditation and visualization help embed new neural pathways.
A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice. The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.
Researcher Imke Kirste explains: “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system. In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain. The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence.”
So as 2017 is blooming and we are all thinking about our intentions for this new year, I hope you will consider adding the gift of silence to your list.
Originally published at medium.com