Neural pruning is the process of removing neurons that are no longer used or useful in the brain. Don’t try it at home! It’s a natural process in the brain that happens at different developmental stages. Children’s brains grow rapidly and in the flood of new learning, neural pathways are created that are useful in some stages but not others. At the initial stages of acquiring new skills, neurons grow thickly and rapidly. Neuroscientist Donald Hebb is often quoted as saying “Neurons that fire together wire together.” But eventually, as some behaviours are found to be more useful and used more often, some of the pathways die out. It’s this process of strengthening and “pruning” that allows us to continue learning and maturing through our lifetime.
Dan Siegel writes in The Mindful Brain:
When we focus our attention in specific ways, we are activating the brain’s circuitry. This activation can strengthen the synaptic linkages in those areas. By exploring the notion that mindfulness, as a form of relationship with yourself, may involve not just attentional circuits, but also social circuitry, we can then explore new dimensions of the brain aspect of our mindful experience….
How would our focus of attention and internal attunement lead to alterations in the circuits of the brain that mediated these functions with mindful awareness? How we pay attention will stimulate neural firings in specific areas, and they will become activated and change their connections within the integrated circuits of the brain.
To put this on the road, it means we become what we practice. If we practice agitation, anxiety, and anger, that will be our strongest neural (and behavioural) routes. Under stress when the thinking brain is off-line, these will be our auto-pilot. If we practice calming, staying in this moment, and compassion, these will be our fall-back positions. Then, under stress, these pathways are more likely to be activated than the old dysfunctional ones.
- make yourself a cup of tea or coffee and treat it as an act of generosity to yourself
- take a moment to appreciate the view and bring awareness to the gift of sight
- acknowledge the pain you feel while noticing that you don’t have to go down old brain alleys of despair
- look at an object with new eyes (remember the raisin exercise!)
- walk out into your day unconditionally