Brain Plasticity and Growing Up

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The first time someone told me about brain plasticity, it was like hearing the voice of God. That sounds so hyperbolic, but I am actually not kidding. I was trudging along, trying to get through my day to day life, feeling stuck in so many things, and one day someone told me that my brain was capable of change. Like physiologically capable of change.

It coincided with a lot of other things in my life. I had been thinking a lot about some of the stuff I had been reading from Jacob Clifton lately (just go buy all of his things, they are the best things, I swear) and I was very stuck on a few things he had said. One of which was that we were not damned to live out our maladaptive behaviors for the rest of our lives. Maladaptive behaviors were adaptive once. You needed to lie or throw fits or manipulate or cut or whatever it was that you did. Those were the things that got you through. That doesn’t make them good things, but once upon a time they kept you alive and look, it worked. You got through the trauma and here you are and there’s no sense in feeling shame for what you once needed.

The trick is to realize you don’t need them anymore. This is harder than it sounds. Once our brains are wired to realize that something works as a protective measure, we don’t want to let it go. We feel that there is danger out there and we are afraid of just trying something else. How can we know that this world isn’t like the chaos we grew up in? How can we be sure it won’t turn on us?

It was exactly those questions I was struggling with, when one day in class someone showed a video of how our brain could be rewired. How we could rewire it, in fact. That making different choices wasn’t simply a matter of a repeated action — with time it could actually change the shape of your mind and how you processed the world.

I don’t know if I can really express what this meant to me. I had essentially grown up being trained into a sort of learned helplessness (although people would be angry to hear me say that). Only God can change you. Only God can make a difference in your life. You are powerless to make any meaningful change yourself. Anything you do will be useless and transitory without God. And there, right in front of me, was proof that it was a lie. It was all a lie. I could make these changes. I could decide this wasn’t who I wanted to be.

There have been a lot of huge revelations in my life, but this definitely ranks towards the top.

I say all of this because this quarter, in my Adolescent and Emerging Adulthood class, my teacher has been talking a lot about brain plasticity. And what she’s saying is making me nervous. See, apparently there is all of this new research about this period of life. Emerging adulthood (which is a pretty new stage, as far as research goes) is a brain stage that goes through about the early 30’s. Right where I’m at, in fact. And apparently, from the beginning of adolescence through the end of emerging adulthood your brain is incredibly plastic. Like the most plastic it will ever be, except in the 0 to 3 years of your life. During this time, it is much easier for you to make changes in your life and in your thought processes. It sets up your life.

But then it stops.

See, apparently somewhere in the early 30’s, the brain wiring all hardens up. It’s genetically determined, it takes a little longer for males than females on average, but when it shuts off, it shuts off. And that is not to say that you can’t learn anything from that point, obviously. Our brains are always capable of change. But just as our window for easy language learning closes at age 10, this window closes here. We’ll be able to learn things, but it will be harder. It’s always going to take a lot more work and conscious effort than it did right now.

And you know. She’s cheerfully telling us all this (my teacher is a dynamo of energy, I have never seen anyone so engaged and thrilled about everything) and I feel myself pulling in a little bit, trying to pull back. Because you know. She’s talking about me. She’s telling me that my brain is about to turn off. She’s telling me maybe that this amazing period of growth that I’ve had is about to end. That it’s not going to be like this forever.

I have had a really great few years. I really have changed tremendously. A number of my previous emotional patterns I have been able to address in a way that I am actually extremely proud of. I’ve made a lot of strides in my relationships, I have really figured out what I want from life in a lot of ways. It has felt like a super exciting time. So I guess I wonder if that will… stop? Like I am really happy with where I am at but not satisfied, obviously. I still have things I want to work on. Will I be able to? Do I have the patience to do this when it becomes much harder? What will that look like? Will I realize it’s happening? Am I now going to stress out about it happening?

I think realistically I probably will not notice. I didn’t notice when a lot of the adolescent craziness started to die down until I was able to look back on it and realize things had changed. Maybe in ten years, I’ll be able to look back at this and realize that yes, things are different but obviously I’m still working on things and moving forward because that’s what I do. At least, I hope so.

On my way home, I was trying to think rationally about the situation instead of just being frightened of it, because it has definitely been stressing me out and my teacher is a bit too intense for me to feel comfortable going to her and being like “So tell me why this shouldn’t terrify me,” at least at this point. But you know what? At least I did damn good work with the last few years if that’s what it is. I really have worked on a lot of the more serious emotional stuff I have going on. My teacher talked today about some of the major issues that are dealt with during this time being self-rewarding, self-discipline and… I don’t remember the third one. But I have definitely gotten better at understanding myself and working with at least the first two. I am happy and comfortable, I know what I want to do and I think I’ll be good at it.

Yeah. If this is the point where it gets more challenging in one way or another… it’s not the worst.

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2 thoughts on “Brain Plasticity and Growing Up

  1. I love this whole post. And I am super stoked to now go to research about emerging adulthood. I guess that would fit in sort of with Erikson’s stage of intimacy vs isolation if we were talking timeline wise, but very very interesting. Or maybe more of identity vs confusion. Anyway, I am fascinated. I miss school sometimes. I love that I get to read about it from you.

    • Oh yeah, there is a LOT of fascinating stuff about it. Also, in developing news, I still felt a little freaked out about it and then was reading my Julia Child memoir later that night and realized that she didn’t even go to France and learn cooking or the language or anything else until she was 34, so you know what? Screw it. It may be harder but you can still learn amazing stuff. It sounds silly but it really did make me feel so much better.
      I feel like identity vs. confusion matches a lot of what I’ve been reading.

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