This weird fat is what makes you smarter, but less creative (Myelin)

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Why is it that it sometimes feels so hard to be creative?

Well, it is because your brain is actually incredibly lazy!

But don’t blame yourself.

Blame evolution.

You see, the brain is one of the most energy-hungry organs in your body, regularly demanding around 20% of the calories your body uses.

And in the distant past, fulfilling our basic needs of feeding ourselves was one of the core behavioural drivers.

Therefore, it makes sense that the brain would evolve to find energy-efficient ways to process information. And one of the most effective things it has evolved is the myelin sheath.

In this crudely drawn representation of a human neuron cell in your brain (of which you have more than 80 billion), input is received at a dendrite synapse, checked in a cell body, and if it should be forwarded to other nearby neurons, sent along the long axons which end in further synapses with other neurons.

This information flow is commonly described as an electric signal, but in fact it is a signal of chemical charged ions called an Action Potential which flow into and out of the axon along the length of the cell. These ions are charged particles and molecules containing elements like Calcium, Sodium and Potassium, and the flow of the ions triggers the flow in surrounding areas, much like a Mexican wave spreading in a sports stadium. It is this charge that makes them react to electrical stimulus, hence why people thought it was electric activity.

So a neuron is triggered, sends a signal down the full length of its axon, and neurons at the end might be triggered if the signal reaches them.

You can think of the axon like a bare metal cable, where if something happens to the signal along the way, it might not reach its destination.

This is where the myelin sheath comes in.

The role of myelin

Myelin is a multi-layer lipid sheet made of organic fats and oligodendrocytes, that form an insulting layer around the axon. If the axon is a bare metal cable, the myelin is the rubber wire around it which insulates the signal from the environment. This allows the signal to travel significantly more efficiently.

An unmyelinated axon can send a signal along its length at a rate of about 0.5 – 10 meters / second. But a myelinated axon can send the same signal at speeds of 150 meters / second. So having myelin around a cell can speed up the transmission of a signal by over a factor of 100.

Not only that, myelin also means less energy is required to transmit the signal. A myelinated axon can use up to 70 times less energy to transmit the signal over the same length and an unmyelinated axon.

So having myelin around a cell makes the signals it carry not only significantly faster, but use less energy. No wonder the brain wants to use these neurons.

And how does the brain determine where to thicken the myelin sheath?

Through repetition. The more you use a neuron, the more the brain will invest in thickening the myelin around it.

What becomes more fascinating is when you realise that no neuron acts alone. Each neuron might connect to the dendrites of many thousands of other neurons, meaning there are trillions of possible networks a message can take in your brain.

But research has also found that if your brain finds a neural network and pathway that leads to a successful outcome, and you repeat that signal along that network again in the future, all the neurons on that network will strengthen their myelin and connections between them. You can remember it through this rhyme:

Cells that fire together, wire together.

Cells that are not used as frequently therefore do not develop as thick a myelin sheath, and are therefore less efficient at transferring signals.

The implication of this is simple: to conserve time and energy, you brain will prefer to use neural networks which have a thicker myelin sheath together. These are likely to be the networks which have been used frequently.

So the more often you repeat something, the easier it becomes.

Eventually, you might form it into a memory, where when a question or input comes, the most efficient thing for the brain to do is to use the memory. After all, the answer in the memory has worked before, so it is likely to work again.

Myelin helps you learn through repetition, and is what allows you to give the right answers to things you know are true.

The problem with efficiency

The problem is that when the brain becomes used to coming up with the answer quickly and with little effort using a memory, it becomes harder to force it to come up with other, more creative answers.

Using myelin, it is sometimes possible for the brain to go on autopilot, directing both thoughts and muscle movement using the steps you have repeated a thousand times with almost no effort or awareness.

It is how you can commute to work and arrive without having really been aware of what happened on the journey.

Or play an instrument or hit a ball using nothing but muscle memory.

Yes, this repetition can help increase your level of skill and get you into a state of flow.

But what happens when you don’t have the answer?

When you need to be creative?

When there is no one clear right answer?

Well, your brain will try to stay efficient, and use a memory instead. Even if this memory is not the right answer.

And when people are pushed to think beyond their memories, they force their brains to use significantly less efficient neural networks and processes. Some people find this not only physically uncomfortable, but also emotionally uncomfortable. They come up against a comfort barrier.

After all, the brain evolved to be efficient, and you are forcing it to do things which are not efficient.

So in order to be truly creative, embrace the feeling of discomfort.

Consciously say to your brain:

“Thank you brain for wanting to be efficient and use what we previously have known to work. That is what you evolved to do. But at this moment, it is ok to use a bit more energy, so we are going to go into some unknown territory and enjoy the journey!”

Not every creative idea you come up with will be good.

Some might be quite bad to start with.

But if you ever come up to your own comfort barrier when you know you should push yourself to be creative, thank your brain for doing what it is supposed to do, but push forward nonetheless.

And the more you practice being aware of this feeling and overcoming it, the more those brain networks will myelinate and strengthen, making you even more creative in the future.

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