Muddy in, muddy out

In the blog two days ago, I talked about "registering" messages. Very often, we let slip messages that have life-changing potential because we fail to register them.

Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, says that if we cannot register something clearly, we will not be able to remember it well. He quotes neuroscientist Michael Merzenich in saying that the problem often occurs "because of the gradual neglect and atrophy of the brain's attentional system and necleus basalis, which have to be engaged for plastic change to occur". The atrophy leads to our representation of "fuzzy" messages. The representation is not sharp because the neurons that encode these messages are not firing in the coordinated, quick way needed to send a powerful sharp signal. Because the neurons that represent messages pass on fuzzy signals to all the neurons downstream from them, we also have trouble remembering, finding and using the messages.

Merzenich proposes two reasons for the atrophy. One is ageing. As we age, "everything is progressively going to hell". The other reason is that the system is not being appropriately exercised. In childhood, we had an intense period of learning. As adults, we rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger. It becomes a situation of "muddy in, muddy out".

Norman Doidge believes that as we age, it is good to learn something that requires intense focus, like learning a new language.

I believe that it is equally important for us to learn to focus our attention on whatever tasks we perform. Adult brains have become so "noisy" that it hampers effective registration of messages. For better clarity, we need to get rid of the noises.

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