Carving Brainwaves

One of my favorite university professors looked like she might have been, in her past life, a rugged saloon keeper in a frontier town. Maybe she played the part-time mad’am for her more discerning customers.

She was short for her height, and commanded firm order sweetly. The lines of her face mapped out years of experience. She had a knowing smile which shined beneath her green eyes. Those eyes watched, with a benign amusement, delinquent college kids with the aloof acceptance accorded brutish gold miners. They implied the awareness that she could be crumpled with force, but the comfort that no extended slight would provoke such action. And gleaming with ignoble respectability from her pearly white smile was a single gold tooth: A spark of eccentric style in a woman of poised stature. That gold tooth held my attention and respect for the duration of her thermodynamics course.

I write now about this professor because of the method of her teaching. Every class, from the first to the last, she drew on the whiteboard the following equation in big, bold, blue:

ΔE = q + w

This equation represents the first law of thermodynamics; E is energy, q is heat, w is work. And before I lose you to intellectual disinterest, I’ll make my point.

This repeated exposure to the core topic leveraged the process by which the human brain learns. It is known that neural pathways in the brain that repeatedly fire become stronger, while neglected ones become weaker. This mechanism is called neuro-plasticity, and it underpins everything the brain incorporates (read:learns). By reinforcing that concept again and again, Professor Innkeeper guaranteed that even the deadhead in the back row (read:me) would remember it.

To be fair, thermodynamic considerations rarely affect day to day life. You, dear reader, likely don’t care. I only feast on this intellectual crumb because it is truth, and truth is my favorite confection.

But here I am, years later, paddling through chilly South Pacific waters atop a fiberglass surfboard. I’m bobbing off the Eastern sea board of Australia like a hairy cork when Mrs. Goldtooth comes dancing across my mental theatre. So between taking thrill inducing plunges on choppy swells, I find myself pondering thermodynamic variables.

Now, I recommend thermodynamic knowledge to those curious about how exactly this universe operates. Just like I recommend surfing to those eager for strong shoulders and a toned tummy. But I recommend both to those who want to take control of their lives. Or to put it differently, I recommend taking something completely foreign and deliberately, persistently adapting it into your status quo.

Wrack your brains to learn a difficult concept. Or paddle out and eat sea foam. Or struggle intensely with something else entirely. Develop skill in something, and be conscious how that skill grows in your mind. Then pick another thing. Because in learning how to learn, you’ll come to the empowering realization that there is nothing you cannot master.

I’ve sucked down gallons of salty foam. Walls of it have surged into my eyes, sluiced into my lungs, and torn down my shorts. Mountains of it have crushed me, tried to drown me. I’ve been flipped into it, backwards and forwards, again and again and again.

Moments of frustration felt like hopeless futility. But lately that foamy, wretched adversity has only splashed at my heels. No longer an imposing menace, it has been reduced to a frothy crash pad.

I’ve finally memorized the legion of tiny physical acts that constitute surfing. The force and duration of paddling. The alignment of my body to the board. The exact timing and tilt of a stance. The relationship between speed and weight distribution. These, and innumerable others, are instinct to me now. Hard-fought, hard-earned, hard-wired neural pathways.

So now I get to enjoy the exhilaration of surfing down aqua slopes. I get to practice carving up and down the powerful swells, dancing fore and aft on my board as I do. Equipped am I to challenge the Fear that rises when a big bastard wave comes barreling toward me. My mind is even comfortable enough to take in the hiss of my fins slicing through the water. My attention is free enough to casually, lightly trace my fingers through green glass as I race past. Surfing has become fun and thrilling, awe inducing and fear shriveling, physically cleansing and fitness growing.

All these benefits true. But not forgotten is the tenacious practice that lead me here. And not misconstrued is the neuro-plasticity that permitted the skill to thrive.

Thank you for reading.


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