I know—strange title, right? What’s a “Brain Garden” anyway?
Well, in an article called, “Your Brain Has a Delete Button”, authors Judah Pollack and Fox Cabane use the metaphor of a garden to explain how the brain works. They invite the reader to imagine that our brain is like a garden, except instead of growing flowers and veggies, we grow synaptic connections between neurons. These connections allow for neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin and others, to travel across.
It turns out, that just like we have some control over what happens in our backyard garden, we also have some control over what happens in our “brain gardens”. We can choose what we “grow” in our brain, as well as what we “prune”.
Each time we think a thought or review an image/memory, we strengthen its neuro-circuit. This is referred to as “neurons that fire together, wire together”. The more we practice certain things—like a musical instrument, a language, or even new concepts—the stronger these circuits get. This is the process of choosing what we “grow”.
Our brain also has a “pruning” mechanism. It marks the synaptic connections that get used less with special proteins, and these get “pruned”—destroyed—from the brain. This pruning allows the brain to make space to create new and stronger connections, in order for you to learn more. So, things that we choose to think LESS about, get “pruned”.
When I read this, I said to myself, “Wow! I better get a grip on my brain garden!” I can be quite lazy with my thinking, and now I realized how harmful that can be. My brain may be pruning some really good stuff because I’m not using those thought patterns, and it may also be strengthening negative thoughts, memories and beliefs that have become habitual.
So, in order to get a better grip on my brain garden, I decided that I would do my best to be more conscious of what I’m thinking.
But how could I control my thinking? Thoughts are like clouds that are constantly drifting in and out of my brain all the time. As a woman, I don’t have a “nothing box” (ha-ha).
Yet, I did notice that I do have the ability to choose which thought clouds to follow. Each one has a particular destination. Some thought clouds have negative pathways and create feelings of anxiety, sadness, annoyance, shame, etc. Others are uplifting and kind, and lead to feelings of hope, joy and peace. Which way did I want to go?
Now, this is not to suggest that I advocate ignoring feelings. Nope—that’s a big no-no. When feeling emotionally triggered by a person or situation, those feelings need to be acknowledged. But if you find yourself in the midst of a tornado of thoughts, this is called ruminating. Ruminating happens when you’re over-thinking a situation, rather than dropping into body awareness and experiencing the physical sensation of the emotion.
The thought clouds that I’m referring to here are the ones that drift in and out of our minds when we’re by ourselves (walking, cooking, cleaning, etc.). In choosing which thought clouds to “jump on”, I’m basically choosing what grows and what gets pruned in my brain.
Here are five tools that I have found to keep my brain garden as happy and healthy as it can be. I invite you to try some of these:
1) Have kind people in your life:
Interacting with kind people means more feel-good “brain food”—pleasant memories, gratitude, laughter, intimacy and joy.
2) Anchor gratitude:
Place your hand on your heart, take a conscious breath, and think of things/people that you feel grateful for. For example: a butterfly flitting around a garden, the smell of essential oils, the taste of chocolate, the laugh of a child. When I do this, I like to thank G-d for giving me the ability to have these experiences. I find that by combining a physical action with the gratitude thought, I’m anchoring that moment of joy deeper into my being.
When you find that you’ve jumped on a thought cloud that is negative, jump off. Tell yourself, “Nope, not going down that path now. The less I think that thought, the greater the chance that it will get pruned from my mind.” Give yourself the freedom NOT to think certain thoughts. It then becomes a habit to discern and discipline.
4) Surround yourself with uplifting images and phrases:
Words and images are powerful. It’s great to “seed” the positive ones in your mind and grow these kind of synaptic connections. Speak the phrases out loud as well—pretend that you’re talking to your imaginary friend…but the friend is you!
5) Sprinkle people with compassion and compliments:
Spreading kindness to others strengthens your neuro-circuits of dopamine and serotonin, and theirs as well.
The next thing you know, by using these tools, we’ll have a world full of people with happy, healthy brain gardens.