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Pick Your Pattern

By March 4, 2024Pilates In Holland

The other day I was doing a little meditative movement and the instructor was focusing on having a beginner’s mind. She had us doing movements that might cause a little of that awkwardness or discomfort I talked about in the last blog. But she asked us to “release the ego and judgments so we can enjoy and celebrate where we’re at.” 

This idea of a beginner’s mind is common in meditation practices. It strives to help us see things not with the grown-up opinions, patterns, and habits we’ve acquired over the years, but with fresh eyes and a sense of wonder, curiosity, and a willingness to learn.

The beginner’s mindset is similar to the growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) often used in educational settings. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says:

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

This mindset helps us to see that mistakes expose the gaps in our knowledge and help us develop resilience and adaptability. A beginner’s or a growth mindset gets us through the awkward phase and into the phase where we start to myelinate new patterns.

Two things are going on here. First, a new neural network is being created; new pathways of neuron connections. Second, through practice, they get stronger and faster or myelinated.

Myelin is the “white matter” in our brains. Like the insulation around the wires in electrical systems, myelin is a membraneous sheath surrounding the axons. The myelination of axons is not required for neurons to function, and many axons remain unmyelinated throughout life. However, myelination greatly increases the speed of signals transmitted between neurons, making the nervous system more efficient.  

Most myelination occurs in the womb and the first year of life. But our brains never stop myelinating important connections. Research has shown that new myelination occurs even in adulthood and that it can be helped along by stimulating circuit activity; aka using those pathways. Through repetition, myelination of movement patterns makes them faster, more reliable, and less consciously thought through.

Biologist and neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford writes:

When we first learn something, it is slow going, like beating a path through untraveled terrain. But as the neurons are activated repeatedly, more myelin is laid down. The more myelin built up, the faster the transmission. In highly myelinated neurons, impulses travel at 100 meters per second. Therefore, the more practice, the more myelin, and the faster the processing – until it becomes easy and familiar, like driving fast on a superhighway.

In other words, neurons that fire together, wire together. First, we have to create the pathway, then we need to strengthen it through practice. Things like memory training and physical therapy can help treat cognitive decline. This neuroplasticity is also true for cultivating positivity and gratitude. If we spend more time focusing on positives than negatives, our brains adapt to look for them and to react that way. But the opposite is also true.

It’s also true that connections that aren’t used regularly can atrophy. This is why we practice those everyday, functional movements in class. Yes, we strengthen our muscles, but we also strengthen those connections. It helps to keep them ready and available. And when we push past the awkwardness of learning a new movement and keep trying it, over and over and over, we give our brains a chance to wire that new pattern too. 

Carla Hannaford again: The wondrous flexibility of our nervous system accommodates a large diversity of skills. We may develop nerve nets to support the fine muscular control and musical sense of the pianist or the spatial acuity of the painter. It is largely up to us. In a sense, we custom design our own nervous systems to meet the choice and challenges of our interests and livelihoods.

So here’s my advice as we live and as we age: pick the patterns you want in your life and don’t stop doing them. 


Author Renee

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