Saturday, April 11, 2015

pathways

The down staircase at the ARC Library

I heard from one of my best friends in South Africa this week, Lyn.  She emailed me an uplifting devotion; I emailed her back to thank her.  In our exchanges, we shared our hearts and what was going on in our lives.  Lyn is near the one year anniversary of losing her husband to cancer; she is having dinner with mutual friends of ours on Wednesday – it made me wish I could be there. 

Lyn remarked about my return to school, saying: “The very fact that you are at college shows that you are teachable … quite frankly, I could think of nothing worse, but then I never was great at studying …

The irony of her statement made me laugh.  I was never great at studying either.  In fact, that’s one of the reasons I stopped going to college in the first place.  I enjoyed being smart enough; I didn’t want to put unnecessary hard work into being educated. 

These days, at fifty-two, I can see clearly where studying gets people.  It gets them pretty damn far.  I learned how to refinish furniture, plant roses, change my printer’s ink cartridge and home-school my children – all because I studied.  I decided to do something and then followed the directions.

Growing up, I was always told I had “attention problems” and I believed them; I loved daydreaming and writing poetry – not math and science. As an adult,  in an act of complete defiance,, I decided to read the biggest book I could find: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  I made it through (I actually loved the book) – it took me a whole year to do it, but I read the book in its entirety.  After I did, I thought : “If I could read War and Peace, I probably could run a marathon…”  The next year, just shy of my fortieth birthday, I did.

Running a marathon and reading Tolstoy’s epic novel were just two of the wake-up calls in my life.  They came late, but I realized that I might be able to really pursue things I wanted if I just focused.

There are pathways in our brain that wear grooves – they are called neuro-pathways. As you study, the neurons housed in the area of your brain that's thinking send electrical messengers to another targeted group of neurons that are processing the same information. At first, these neural pathways struggle to form a connection and store the information. These new pathways become stronger the more they are used, causing the likelihood of new long-term connections and memories.

Imagine yourself growing up in a wooded area, taking the paths through the woods to and from school everyday.  They are safe and clear and it doesn’t take much effort to stay on them.  You can think about other things while you’re walking, like what’s for dinner or who is going to be playing baseball that day.  One day, out of the blue, you decide to cut a new path closer to a nearby river where you want to fish; you purposefully take this path every day.  Eventually, this path becomes more worn and you have accomplished making a new trail.  The new path might  never become as worn as your original one, but it’s still a new pathway.   This is a lot like how neuroplasticity is worked into our brains when we learn a new skill. The more we repeat something and use that portion of the brain in a focused way, the more these neural pathways develop in our brain.

After spring break, I returned to school and got my midterms back.  I passed them all, but two of them were not A’s.  I felt discouraged, until I remembered that this is still all new to me.  I am trudging a new path and building neuroplasticity as I go along.  I'll study harder, I thought.  I made appointments to talk to my professors about improving my grades. 


I was never good at studying, but I will be.  With grace, I’ll be better at it than I ever was before.  Thursday, after I finished studying at the library, I decided to take the stairs down to my class instead of the elevator.  Maybe I’ll do that from now on…
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