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Your brain as a junk drawer

By Erin Smith

We have this drawer in the kitchen. You know the one. The drawer that catches life’s detritus, that time capsule of existence. It contains knickknacks and thumbtacks, safety pins and has been whatnots. Odd keys, Lowe’s receipts, leftover pieces from the time I assembled that Ikea bookcase. A quick scan reveals random hair ties, partially melted crayons, too-cheap stamps, chargers for cell phones we no longer own, and other puzzle pieces of our past.

My point is, the things in that drawer are mostly useless, but we’re averse to part with them, unsure if we might need them one day. But occasionally purge them we must, lest they become so full we can no longer shut the drawer. Too many gizmos and you never find the one you need.

Our brains are like that junk drawer. All day long, we fill them with sensory input, building neural connections between synapses. We’ve all heard that neurons that fire together, wire together, right? This means that the more often you have a certain thought, the stronger the synaptic connection. Directions to your house? The name of your childhood best friend? The lyrics to Happy Birthday? These neural connections are strong because this information gets lots of playing time in your brain.

But what to do with the lesser-used information? The name of that one actor who was in that one movie? Directions to the zoo in a town you’ve only visited twice? How to install the filter in your HVAC? Our brains have a virtual junk drawer where they store this knowledge. And this mental material basically just sits there until our brain decides to use it or recycle it.

And just like that drawer in the kitchen, our brains have to occasionally clean up, getting rid of what it deems useless to make room for new information.

Think of it as throwing out expired batteries to make room for the take-out menu from that new restaurant down the street. We do this through something called Microglial cells. Synaptic connections that aren’t used often enough (say, the words to that Robert Frost poem you memorized long ago) get marked by a protein. Then the Microglial cells travel through the brain. When they find a marked synapse, they bind with that protein and destroy, or throw away, that synapse. This keeps your useful connections stronger and makes room for new information to be learned (and, hopefully, remembered). Your Microglial cells are the maintenance crew that keeps your brain clean and efficient.

And just like most maintenance crews, those cells work at night. When we are resting deeply, we start to produce delta brain waves, which signals many of our brain cells to shrink to almost half their size, making room for the Microglial cells to clean up. If we don’t get enough rest, the gizmos and doodads in our brain just build up, making it harder to locate the useful information. Too many gizmos and you can never find the one you need, remember?

So the more often we can slide our brains into a delta brain wave state, the smarter and more focused our gray matter. That’s why, when we have a problem we’re trying to solve, it’s good to “sleep on it.” Our brain just makes better decisions when it’s rested.

Are you wondering if there are other ways to slide the brain into a delta state so the junk drawer can get cleaned? Sadly, there is no substitution for deep sleep. But there are things we can do during the day to help us get more deep rest at night.

A mindfulness practice moves the brain into theta and alpha brain waves, both states of relaxed awareness (sometimes called the flow state). While the Microglial cells aren’t active during flow, finding the flow state during the day helps us access delta sleep much more quickly once our head hits the pillow. And it only takes a few minutes a day of silent, mindful breathing to make the magic happen! 

Restorative yoga is another great way to prime your brain for a good nightly clean out. Restorative yoga uses props like blankets and blocks to support your body’s weight so that you may completely rest and relax. You might stay in a pose for 10 minutes, using mindful breathing to access that state of relaxed awareness. Restorative yoga helps treat insomnia and trains the nervous system to unwind more quickly when it’s time for sleep.

At the OM place, we offer two weekly restorative yoga classes called Sweet Release (Tuesdays at 7:15 pm and Saturdays at 9:30 am). Come experience the deliciousness of restorative yoga. Want other tips in getting a good night’s sleep? Check out the Rest chapter in my book Sensible Wellness.

Life will keep throwing useless things into the junk drawer of your brain. Make a conscious effort to relax during the day and hit the pillow a little earlier each night so that your gray matter doesn’t end up looking like this drawer!

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films. She wants everyone to make friends with meditation, eat real food, move their bodies and hit the pillow a little earlier. When she’s not standing on her head, she enjoys being a wife, mother, dancer, reader, flower sniffer, guitar player and wine drinker. Send her a shout out at erin@theOMplace.net or play along at www.theOMplaceChannel.com.