There’s this guy that I know that I meet up with from time to time for various reasons. We usually meet in the same place, usually for hour or so or less. This guy is exceedingly busy, and doesn’t have a lot of free time. I hadn’t him around recently, but I ran into him last week. He had just finished his PhD doctoral thesis on some kind of advanced mathematics. Something to do with eigenvalues and laplacians and boundary levels. He was trying to explain how laplacian waveforms behave differently with and without boundaries. Of course, I have zero idea what that means, but I acted like I did. It has been a long time since I’ve studied calculus, and while many of the equations in his thesis looked to be written with symbols I was at least familiar with at one point in my life, I had forgotten the meanings.
The interesting thing was that he had spent the entire night before meticulously checking his final thesis for errors. In case you’ve read any of my other blog points, you may have come to the conclusion that checking for errors isn’t one of my particular strong points. And that’s a few hundred-word blog post. This guy had a several hundred page thesis densely packed with graduate level math equations. And he had spent the whole night hunting to make sure every last “t” and had been dotted and every indefinite integral had been properly tabulated.
The funny thing was this guy was just barely able to hold a normal conversation. His mind was obviously shot from a combination of no sleep, and stretching his brain to capacity. We were trying to have a normal conversation about current events and other boring topics, but his mind was bouncing all over the place.
At what point he was trying to explain something to me, and couldn’t quite think of the word. (English is his second language). After a moment of thought, he had completely lost track of what we were talking about. It was quite comical. Normally he is a very logical and intelligent sounding person, but during this particular conversation, he reminded me of that lyric from the White Stripe strong “Hardest Button to Button”:
“I got a brain that feels like pancake batterâ€¦”
I remember back when I was in junior high school. We were in weight training class; the gym teacher was explaining how the body builds muscle. You do some weight lifting, and the muscle fiber is actually broken down, on a physical level. The body, being the miracle machine that it is, goes right to work to rebuild it, but because it has been stressed due to overwork, it just rebuild it according to the same specifications as before. It upgrades its specs based on the fact that the muscles were broken down because they couldn’t handle the physical load. The body then responds by rebuilding a slightly stronger muscle that will be able to handle a better load the next time around.
It breaks down, becomes sore the next day, but comes back stronger. You repeat this process enough times, and you can get some pretty strong, or pretty fast, or pretty well coordinated muscles. Anybody that starts off with set of muscles and bones built to factory specs can, within certain limits, rebuild it any way you want, given the right training and diet. Combine that with increasing your control over your muscles through various mind/body practice and exercises, and you can become a very elegant world-class athlete in a wide variety sports, if you decide early enough and stick to it long enough.
Several years ago there was this fast food company, Jack in the Box. They had this horrible scandal, where some tainted meat got into their supply, and a few people actually died. Killing people with your fast food is probably the quickest way to going out of business. But within a couple of years, they came back stronger than ever. They reorganized their quality control, developed much tougher inspection standards, and started a whole new public relations campaign. Before the incident(s), they didn’t have such a stellar reputation. I remember as a kid sharing rumors that they used kangaroo meat in their hamburgers. But after they reorganized, and launched a public re imaging campaign, they were back on top again. Those commercials with Jack and his big head became pretty commonplace, and they wiped out any negative image that they had before.
Scientists are starting to think that the brain builds up connections and neural pathways much like a muscle builds stronger and more efficient muscle fiber. If you have a bunch of different neurons scattered all through your brain, and you are starting to fire them off in a sequence they’ve never been fired off in before (e.g. thinking a bunch of new thoughts regarding laplacian eigenvalue boundary problems) you brain will naturally reorganize, and create several million, If not billion new connections. This new huge collection of neural pathways and networks are more efficient, and you are much smarter, and are able to think new ideas without that feeling of confusion or anxiety that came with them when you first thought them.
When we exercise, and lift weighs, we tend to instinctively realize there is a “good soreness” that comes the day after a good workout. And when we’re pushing our bodies to capacity, either doing one more pushup or pull-up, or putting an extra bit of juice into that final spring around the curve, we realize that our bodies will recover, and likely come back stronger. So next time we’ll easily do a couple more pushups, or pull-ups, or run faster out of the gait.
When you realize the initial stress and anxiety that sometimes comes with learning new things and experiences can be thought of the same way, there’s no reason why you can’t exercise your brain, becoming smarter and smarter, just like some people exercise their bodies, and become stronger and stronger.
My friend with his new PhD is a great example of this. He’s in his late forties, and teaches Junior High School science. He decided to get his PhD in math a few years ago, and now he’s got it. All it took was as a decision, and some follow-up effort.
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