Vocabulary that fires together wires together

There’s a neurological concept called Hebb’s Law that’s basically summarized as “neurons that fire together wire together.”  This principle explains why it is that, when we hear an old song on the radio, we might immediately be flooded with memories and emotions that remind us of our first loves, best friends from high school, or educational topics that we learned in childhood. All sorts of associations can surface when we encounter something from our past, even if it’s been years since we’ve thought about those past remembrances.

I find that the same is true with languages. I studied French in high school, college, and grad school, and I’ve also picked up a few other languages through friends and travels. I can speak at least a few phrases (if not more) in Spanish, German, Thai, Khmer (the language spoken in Cambodia), Ewe (an indigenous language in Ghana), Czech, Italian, and Japanese.

The thing that amuses me is that sometimes these phrases emerge randomly, out of nowhere and there are certain phrases that I associate with one particular language over the others. In a few instances, there are idiomatic expressions that I automatically think of in foreign languages before they come to me in English.

Recently, I was in a situation where I had to engage in a conversation with someone who doesn’t speak a word of English. While I spend most of my time thinking in English…and I’m aware of how my brain operates when it comes to other languages…I was still amazed at how quickly my “foreign” vocabulary came back to me.

Words that hadn’t crossed through my conscious mind in years suddenly popped into my head, and some words that I’d never even encountered managed to come out of my mouth. I was able to get through a technically complex conversation much better than I had anticipated, which really shouldn’t have surprised me, given that I’ve done this numerous times over the years.

This got me to thinking about how languages work in our heads. It’s similar to how my fingers remember how to play scales, arpeggios, and chord progressions on my flute or the piano, even when I haven’t really practiced these instruments in months. My fingers seem to go into autopilot and play things without me consciously thinking about what to do.

Just like language (which some people would argue includes the “language of music”), our brains have the capacity to come up with all sorts of associations without us making the conscious effort to cultivate those connections. This can include memories from childhood that have long since disappeared into the crevices of ancient memory.

While many of these associations can be beneficial, sometimes our mind’s ability to “connect the dots” can cause internal conflict or pain. Anyone who has ever heard a song that reminds them of a painful breakup or romantic rejection can relate to this.

We don’t always notice when our minds are making these connections, though. An example that I often use for illustration is the way my own brain responds when it hears loud, sudden noises. As an infant, I had a traumatic experience when a 4th of July performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (complete with booming canons to replicate battlefield explosions–check out the link for a recording) occurred on the same day that I fell onto the pavement and injured myself. As a result, for most of my life, I would be startled whenever I encountered an abruptly loud sound, even though my training as a musician had encouraged me to embrace those sounds. Just the sound of a balloon popping was enough to make me jump.

One of the things that we teach in Neurosculpting® is that we have the capability to rewire our brains. Meditation can help us to do this because, through that practice, we’re able to calm the fight-or-flight center before attempting to rewrite the narratives that hold us back.

So if there’s a particular belief or old story that is getting in the way of our ability to move forward, we can start to uncouple the associations that have been built up in our brains, including those unconscious connections. Hebb’s Law can be a beneficial thing, in the case of language recollection and communication.

But when we’re trapped under the weight of traumatic memories (such as my early childhood trauma due to the loud noise that I encountered at a 4th of July festival), it’s possible to rewire our brains so that the neurons that were previously firing together will no longer wire together.

Meanwhile, I’ll try to keep my language neurons firing and wiring in such a way that my French vocabulary sticks together, somewhat compartmentalized from my Spanish vocabulary. The alternative (which has happened on occasion) is that I start out in one language and then transition into another language. Given the strange looks that I’ve received when that happens, I try to keep the blending of languages to a minimum.

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Silly Break

I’m way behind on blogging. Travel stuff on the way, and also part two of Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame. In the meantime, here is a silly break…a change of pace from the super-serious things I’ve been writing about lately.

As a child, I hated the color of my hair. It’s not fire-engine red, but reddish enough to where my hair was the source of endless teasing in a small town where my hair color was unusual. And given that I didn’t grow up near Dublin (the only place I’ve ever visited where I actually blended in), red hair wasn’t exactly common.

Me 3rd grade

Oh how I hated my hair. And yes, my fashion style hasn’t changed much over the years. I own a strikingly similar shirt now.

I also had a particularly vivid imagination throughout my childhood. Still do, in fact. At one point when I was feeling particularly self-conscious about my hair, I concocted a plan to rid myself of the redheaded curse. OK, so my original plan was to dye my hair black, but my mom vetoed my request. For some strange reason, she didn’t think that an 8-year old should go to such extremes, and her unconditional love for me made it impossible for her to understand why I hated my hair so much.

Then I came up with an even better plan. One that didn’t involve chemicals. (Or so I thought.) I’m not sure exactly how I came up with this idea, but I decided that I wanted to shave my head. But no, my vision wasn’t as simple as me walking around with no hair. I wanted to replace my hair with a whipped cream wig. For some reason, I seem to remember a book that included a picture of a man wearing a very full (and rather ridiculous-looking) shaving cream beard. My imagination ran with the concept….

Me with a beard

Not quite a shaving cream beard, but close…

The conversation went something like this.

Me: “I hate my hair. I want to shave it all off.”
Mom: “No, Cynthia, you can’t shave your head.”
Me: “Why not?”
Mom: “You’re not old enough to use a razor.”
Me: “You could do it.”
Mom: “I would have to shave it every few days, and we don’t have time for that.”
Me: “But I want to shave my head!!!!!”
Mom: “No.”
Me: “I could wear a whipped cream wig.”
Mom: “What?”
Me: “Instead of hair. I could have a wig. But made of whipped cream.”
Mom: “It would melt and run down your face.”
Me: “No, because I could eat it and carry Reddi-Whip with me to put more on.”
Mom: “Cynthia, we can’t afford Reddi-Whip. And we certainly can’t afford to buy a can a day.”
Me: “But it would be so much better than my hair.”
Mom: “If you think you get made fun of for your hair now, you would be picked on even more if you wore whipped cream on my head.”
Me: “Everyone likes whipped cream.”
Mom: “Not when it’s melting all over you in the hot Texas sun.”
Me: “Pleeeeaaaaassssseeeeee?????”
Mom: “No. You’ll thank me for this when you’re older.”

Whipped cream wig

I’m already wearing a cat costume. Why not add a whipped cream wig?

In hindsight, I guess that I can indeed thank her for not allowing me to fulfill all my childhood fantasies. Because, yeah, I would have looked rather silly wearing a whipped-cream wig. Probably…

P.S. I made the mistake of doing a Google search for “whipped cream wig” in hopes of finding an image to include in this blog post. Now I wish that my mom could have had a little talk with Katy Perry before she made her “California Gurls” video. Yikes! For a more whimsical picture (but I’m not posting it on this page because I assume it’s copyrighted), try this one.