Life can suck. It can also be pretty great. Sometimes we’ll stub our toe on the corner of a table, other times we’ll find a quarter in the parking lot. The way we react to these normal, yet uncommon stimuli can feel pretty natural. You might welp a painful “darn it!” as you hobble on your remaining good leg or exclaim some other gleeful phrase after spotting your shiny bounty under a car. “Yippee!”
While instinctual, our reactions to things are trained and developed over time. There’s a phrase in neuroscience that goes, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Catchy, right? Allow me to explain. The brain is always learning and forming a neural network inside your brain. Upon any stimulus, like a thought, emotion, or physically observed occurrence, thousands of neurons (a nerve cell in the brain, they transmit information) are triggered, and they grow to form an interconnected web inside your brain. Neurons are pretty smart, so when we repeat certain experiences multiple times, some neurons develop a memory of what happened the previous times and know to fire into action together.
For example, most of us (unfortunately) have kicked the edge of a table. It really hurts. That pain we experience upon the physical stimulus of kicking the table is a trigger, and as soon as it happens tons of neurons are firing in our brain. Let’s say your initial reaction is to yell out, “dang it!” or some profanity if that’s more realistic. The next time you make the same mistake and bump into a stationary table, the odds of having the same reaction as the first time will increase, and increase, and increase with each painful occurrence of that stimuli. This isn’t too surprising. The neurons remember that feeling of pain, and they remember that reaction from the first time, so they copy it and fire in the same way as before. However, now let’s say you bang your elbow into a wall, something that we’ll assume produces a somewhat similar pain to stubbing one’s toe. Despite the physical sensation being in a different part of the body and being of a different nature, the same “toe-neurons” will likely fire in response to the physical stimuli. “Dang it!” Another example is with people who suffered abuse as young children: physical contact of any nature, perhaps a pat on the back, could be enough to trigger a strong defensive response because the neurons had been fired in the same way over and over, so they then wired together, linking physical contact to a fight or flight response.
As our neural networks develop, they can expand to connect stimuli of different degrees to similar reactions. Which is why sometimes our reactions might seem a bit strong compared to what instigated them. Lets say, for example, you’re a basketball player in the championship game. The clock is winding down, the score is tight, the fans are on their feet. Mere seconds left on the clock, you just need one basket to win it all, and the ball gets passed to you for a wide open shot. All around, you hear “Shoot! Shoot!” so you do. You missed, the clock runs out, and you lost the game. That’ll be our stimuli, missing the final shot. Now, in this hypothetical situation (you would’ve scored in real life, of course) your reaction follows the lines of negative self talk, things like “I’m the worst! I’m terrible! Gahhhh!” While this reaction probably isn’t uncommon for people in this situation, it’s still not very healthy.
So what follows? In response to the stimuli, missing the shot, neurons fired off triggering negative emotions and sparking an array of self deprecating language. What follows is that negative self-talk, all the mean things you say to yourself because of the stimulus, become more and more common. The neurons fired together, and became wired together, so that next time you’re faced with a similar situation, they’ll remember to fire again in response to the common emotions. It could be after missing a winning shot in your soccer game, or even after doing poorly on a test saying something like “I’m the worst! I stink! Gahhhhh.” Then, as your neurons get more and more wired together, they’ll start to fire in response to less significant stimuli that emulate familiar emotions. It doesn’t just take the immense guilt of missing a shot to tell yourself, “I’m the worst!” It’ll take slight guilt, like missing any shot even when you’re winning. Saying “I’m the worst” can even begin to feel like a natural response to any negative emotions, not just guilt. Disappointment, sadness, disgust, lethargy, and many more can all stimulate your neurons to trigger the “I’m the worst! I stink! Gahhhh!” reaction.
It’s important to recognize this. What’s your response to life? Is there one phrase or action you observe in yourself whenever something bad happens? Would you describe it as unhealthy? It might not be. Nonetheless, problems can arise where seemingly powerful responses come after small occurrences. As they say, don’t cry over spilled milk. While I’m not at all trying to imply that your emotions aren’t valid or that your experiences don’t warrant a degree of emotional expression, I do think that it could be a good idea to nip some of these reactions close to the bud. Just by being conscious of our actions and their positive or negative energy, we can stop the neural networks from wiring to fire of common reactions in response to stimuli that vary in intensity. It’s something I’ve picked up on recently and I’m now working to reverse-engineer those neural networks.
Krupic, Julija. “Wire Together, Fire Apart.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 8 Sept. 2017, science.sciencemag.org/content/357/6355/974.summary#:~:text=This%20principle%20is%20known%20as,fire%20together%E2%80%9D%20(2).
“What Does ‘Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together’ Mean?” SuperCamp, 28 Apr. 2014, www.supercamp.com/what-does-neurons-that-fire-together-wire-together-mean/.