What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question we’re asked repeatedly as children, and it becomes a question many of us ask ourselves in high school, college, and well into adulthood. My Dad, well into his eighties now, still jokes that he better decide what he’s going to be when he grows up. It’s a question that fills our distant future with possibilities, dreams, maybes, and somedays.
But for many of us, it fills our present with paralysis. It’s as if, like Sarah in Labyrinth, we’re surrounded with bubbles displaying the many facets of ourselves, and we’re asked to pop just one, maybe two, if we’re ambitious. How can we possibly choose?
I have two problems with the question. The first is with the words “to be.” In the context of the sentence, these words suggest that we’ll magically metamorphose into a future self, like a caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly. It leaves no room for carving a path toward our future self, for walking on that path and taking in the scenery, or scrambling uphill to reach a new plateau, or possibly even wandering onto an offshoot that takes us in a slightly new direction.
Which brings me to the second problem I have with the question, which is with the words “when you grow up.” Nothing plants us further from our present selves and the possibilities that today affords than the suggestion that we will someday meet and benefit from a distant future version of ourselves. The truth is, we will never meet that future self. The persona we imagine will never see the things that we’ll see, will never be shaped by the relationships we’ll cultivate, or end, will never take the college class that will change our world view. They will never be us, and we will never be them.
Which is not to say we shouldn’t dream. Or that there aren’t those who, from the start, have an uncanny ability to envision what their future will entail, at least to some degree, and can not only envision the steps it will take to get to the future they imagine, but know how to inhabit a present that is tied to such a future. In fact, their future may be less a concern than the present. My son is gifted with utter focus when it comes to drawing, which, over time, has enabled him to develop a confident, controlled hand. “Do you want to be an artist when you grow up?” I asked him. He looked at me, shocked. “I am an artist,” he replied. And so he is.
But there are those of us who wonder about our future. Who see the numerous possibilities and think, there is time to decide, or perhaps, time will give me a sign. And to those of you, I suggest an alternate question, “What do I want to master now?” In other words, allow yourself the freedom and confidence to choose a path, this very second. Choose one area, one topic, one skill to truly master. I promise your choice will be a good one. When you’re forced to choose one thing to spend a good amount of time upon, it will, at the very least, be a subject that’s interesting to you.
Don’t worry about having to choose only one area to master. There will be time to choose others. You might even find that as you walk deeper into the woods of your subject, that there are additional connecting paths that beckon, or a connecting bridge that changes your direction altogether.
Our Mental Castles
So, why choose one thing? When we flit nearly instantaneously from topic to topic as they pop up in our email or shoot down our feed, we’re not doing our brain any favors. According to neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen, authors of The Distracted Mind, when you’re able to focus on a topic for a length of time — weeks, months, or longer — your brain will be better tuned to perceiving information, filtering what is relevant or not, and later recalling that information.
The deeper you’re able to delve into a subject, the more you’re able to create, in your own mind, an organizational construct of the information related to that subject, enabling you to store information properly, retrieve information, and make connections within that subject area and — eventually — across multiple subjects.
In K. Patricia Cross’s paper “Learning Is About Making Connections,” Cross notes that the parallels between the neurological brain and the cognitive brain are uncanny. As we process and order information, the brain develops a schema, “a cognitive structure that consists of facts, ideas, and associations organized into a meaningful system of relationships.” Each new bit of information is filtered into the schema and connected to the existing structure in a way that creates meaning.
What’s especially pertinent is the processing of that new information. A student does not simply absorb a preformed cognitive structure into their brain. They do not make a mental copy of external information as if they were copying a disc drive. Like master builders, students must decipher and actively construct bits of information into a solidly architected, well-ordered castle that lives within their own minds.
As Cross notes, “they quite literally build their own minds.” That said, the more information is presented in a logical structure, the better chance a student might have of building a well-ordered schema, and of moving more effortlessly from lower to higher concepts within the subject area.
Our Ever-Changing Brain
What, exactly, is happening to our brain from a neurological perspective when we engage in active learning? Many of us have heard the phrase, cells that fire together, wire together. When we learn something new, neuron cells that fire, or send and receive information about that topic or skill, become better and better about sending and receiving information over time. The synapses, or connections between the cells, grow stronger. In other words, as the cells become more “wired” together, information can travel more efficiently and faster across them.
By learning and creating new neural pathways — the circuit of cells that wire together when we learn — we’re in fact building and shaping our brains to be more efficient machines.
We’ve seen the effects of this in the brain through fMRI and PET scans. In Science News for Students article, “Learning Rewires the Brain,” by Alison Pearce Stevens, Pearce Stevens notes that “Areas that allow people to pay attention became the most active as someone began a new task. But those attention areas become less active over time. Meanwhile, areas of the brain linked with daydreaming and mind-wandering became more active as people became more familiar with a task.”
At the beginning of learning a task, a great deal of focus is required of the learner, as those synapses are developed and honed. But after a good deal of practice, and after the neural pathway is created, your brain doesn’t need to think as much about the task while you’re doing it. You may even daydream as you finish calculating that math problem or playing that piece of cello music.
When we learn a new skill or new information, it’s not just the synaptic connections that change. There are various changes that occur in the brain. There has been shown to be an increase in gray matter in students after they study. Musicians have also been shown to have thicker regions of auditory cortex than others. In Douglas Fields’ Scientific American article, The Brain Learns in Unexpected Ways,” Fields notes that “many different cellular changes could expand gray matter volume, including the birth of new neurons and of non-neuronal cells called glia. Vascular changes and sprouting and pruning of axons and dendrites that extend from the main body of a neuron could also do the same.”
One area of the brain, in particular, that has received quite a bit of attention recently in relation to learning is a white substance called myelin. Sheaths of myelin are wrapped around the nerve fibers, or axons, of a neuron. These myelin sheaths, according Fields, act as a kind of electrical insulation and boost the speed of transmitting information by 50 to 100 times. The thicker the myelin — which makes up part of the “white matter” of the brain — the faster the speed of transmission. The spaces between myelin sheaths on the axon are called nodes of Ranvier, and these spaces generate electrical impulses that help information pulse through the sheaths from node to node, as if flying through space.
Thicker “white matter” in the brain has been associated with higher IQs and higher proficiency with reading, arithmetic, and various other skills. How does the white matter thicken? Most simply, glia cells wrap single layers of myelin around the tendrils of axons in response to neural activity, thereby increasing the speed of transmission.
However, myelin’s work is, in fact, more delicate and precise than that. Information travels along different axons at different speeds. So then, how can electrical pulses of information possibly meet up simultaneously? The answer lies, at least in part, again, with myelin sheaths. Sometimes, the layers of myelin around the axons will be removed — thinned — in order to slow down the speed of the synaptic transmission, enabling synapses of varying speeds to meet at relay points and fire together.
What’s more, when we master a new skill or apply a learned skill, or even just recall a memory that’s replete with various sights, smells, and sounds, we leverage vast areas of the brain. Brain waves, or oscillations, are believed to travel across the brain and connect neural activity from distant regions of the brain. Once again, the myelin has an important role in ensuring that the neural transmissions are timed perfectly so that they can meet and talk to each other. Per Fields, myelin plasticity — meaning myelin’s ability to add and decrease its layers of thickness — “is important for brain waves because the proper conduction velocity is necessary to sustain oscillations that couple two regions of the brain at the same frequency.”
Like a meticulously choreographed ballet, where the ballerinos time every movement so that they’re in place to catch the soaring ballerinas, our brain’s synapses glide through our brain’s circuitry at various speeds, but in perfect synchronicity, so they can meet, catch each other, and continue their dance. Timing is everything.
Aiding Our Brain, and Ourselves
So, as a vision of what happens within our brain as we master a new skill comes into sharper focus, we can start to support our brain’s proclivity to forge these new dynamic, resonating connections.
How do we support the creation of this neural circuitry? For one, we can take it slow. It turns out our brain will lay better tracks if we feed it information slowly and steadily, to give the neurons time to strengthen their synaptic connections and to give the glia cells time to wrap the myelin around the axons. Instead of cramming hours of information into your brain the night before a test, absorb bits of information each day, over several days, or weeks, or longer.
Another thing we can do? Sleep. During sleep, our brains work to sort through memories and the new information we learned during the day in order to store it properly. And to help it do this, it has a trick. The neuron cells are active and still firing. However, when we sleep, they fire in reverse. According to Pearce Stevens, electric signals fire near the middle of the axon and travel backward to the main body of the neuron cell. This reverse firing helps to strengthen the connections between the cells, and it — rather counterintuitively — gives the neuron cell a rest from firing.
All of this helps to wire the cells together, and the neuron cell will be rested and poised to fire “forward” the next day. Absorbing new information before you sleep may even help your brain to more efficiently process that information.
Yet another thing we can do to help our brains solidify these neural connections is to adopt a growth mindset. If you’ve set yourself upon mastering a new skill, you’re probably doing this anyway. A growth mindset is one in which you adopt the belief that it’s possible to become smarter and cultivate an interest in new things, provided you put in the time and energy needed to do so, as opposed to a fixed mindset, where you believe that your interests and intelligence are fixed, set from birth.
One of the main advantages of a growth mindset is that you tend to learn from your mistakes, as opposed to being discouraged by them and shutting down your curiosity, as a result. Someone with a growth mindset will approach their error with the curiosity necessary to learning and developing a new skill.
One Thing Leads to Another
How does nurturing our brain’s development support our personal growth? How does it help to answer the question of what, in the world, do we want to do with our lives? In short, mastering a subject helps us to see more than we possibly ever could before.
Let’s return to the schema — that mental structure we develop that “consists of facts, ideas, and associations organized into a meaningful system of relationships.” As we master a topic, we develop meaningful associations vertically, meaning we dive deeper and learn more about the subject at hand. In fact, when we delve really deeply into an area of interest, everything seems to interlink and resonate in some way with that topic.
But as the structure takes form, we also begin to learn horizontally. We start to see and build connections to other topics as well. The warping and wefting threads of the mental tapestry we create continue to evolve, and soon the threads become interwoven naturally with other areas of curiosity and interest.
Consider the fine artist who decides they want to become a surgeon. The two areas seem to be totally at odds. How does one connect to the other? The fine artist is able to see in detail, including the human body, if the body has often been an art subject. They observe every sinew and angle and vein in order to depict the image they’re creating. They have trained their brains to see things differently than others do. Imagine bringing that level of observation, appreciation, and understanding to the medical field. Perhaps it was that level of observation that sparked the interest in the first place.
Consider the teacher who dreams of becoming an architect, and decides to change course. In doing so, are they really breaking ties with all they have learned as a teacher, or is that knowledge a part of themselves that they can expand upon and leverage in their new endeavor? Could their work as a teacher have even helped to plant the seed of pursuing an architecture degree?
After all — and this is just a metaphorical connection — but an education is architected, to some degree. A teacher first paints a broad picture to delineate the educational goal, then they build a solid foundation of knowledge and then build upon it, step after careful step, in order to enable the student to progress smoothly from basic to complex concepts.
Looking at that example from another angle, consider the learning environment a teacher must develop to aid students in their learning. The classroom must be designed to support focus. There may be information on the walls that maps to current topics, but ideally not so much information as to distract and confuse. Materials are ideally stored and accessible in a way that allows the student to set up the materials, use the materials, and then store them away, so that they’re no longer the focal point, or distracting. The entryway is ideally set up as an inviting welcome area, to help students transition to their learning environment with ease, as opposed to trepidation. Some architects have suggested that classrooms would benefit by having a natural transition to the outdoors, such as a deck area, so that students can benefit from the calming effect of nature, and also more easily learn from and explore the natural world.
Just as architects have helped to design hospitals that may be emotionally and physically healthier for patients, architects may be leveraged by schools to optimize the learning environment. And perhaps, the teacher who has architected information for students can bring a particular humanist approach to the buildings and environments they design.
The world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and the less siloed you are in your mindset, the more you’ll be able to bridge subjects, whether you’re veering seamlessly from one path to another, connecting two areas of science to develop a new medical advancement, or connecting technology and social science to help meet a human need.
We Are What We Learn, and We Learn, and We Learn
It’s uncanny, but as our brains literally form new connections as we learn more about the world around us, we develop whole worlds within ourselves. As we discover new layers of meaning, we expand our horizons and discover new facets of ourselves. And the more we learn about ourselves — the more we discover personal truths — the more, it seems, that we’re able to see truths that we all share.
My belief? No one is alone on their journey of learning and self-discovery. With every step you take, with every choice you make, the universe — whether it’s the one you live in or the one taking shape inside of yourself — meets you halfway. It gives you ground to stand on, shines a light on what’s around the corner, and sometimes, every now and then, offers you a great scenic mountaintop, from which you can see in all directions. Perhaps it’s an “Aha” moment when the various pieces of the puzzle you’ve been working on click together, or perhaps it’s a sudden vision of another connecting path that winds far ahead, into the valley below.
‘“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”’ Only you, however, can take the first step. And there’s no need to wait.
Header image by Gustav Klimt (1862 Wien – 1918 Wien), Allee zum Schloss Kammer, 1912, Gemälde, Sammlung Viktor Zuckerkandl, Wien – Berlin. – 1927 Paula Zuckerkandl, Berlin. – 1927 Nachlass Zuckerkandl, Wien, 1929 Ankauf aus der Verlassenschaft Zuckerkandl, Wien, https://sammlung.belvedere.at/objects/8691/allee-zum-schloss-kammer?