Sleepwalking Through Life

I’m reading a fascinating book called “The Power of Habit”, and this section struck me as particularly interesting:

While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain—and in particular, its basal ganglia—worked furiously. Each time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, its brain exploded with activity, as if analyzing each new scent, sight, and sound. The rat was processing information the entire time it meandered. The scientists repeated their experiment, again and again, watching how each rat’s brain activity changed as it moved through the same route hundreds of times. A series of shifts slowly emerged. The rats stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns. Instead, they zipped through the maze faster and faster. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: As each rat learned how to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased. As the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less.

Within a week, even the brain structures related to memory had quieted. The rat had internalized how to sprint through the maze to such a degree that it hardly needed to think at all. But that internalization—run straight, hang a left, eat the chocolate—relied upon the basal ganglia, the brain probes indicated. This tiny, ancient neurological structure seemed to take over as the rat ran faster and faster and its brain worked less and less. The basal ganglia was central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep.

The author goes on to talk about how our basal ganglia is able to encode incredibly complex habits and allow us to perform them on autopilot, without any conscious thought. Have you ever spaced out while driving? You come to minutes later, but you haven’t crashed; despite the fact that your conscious mind was completely engrossed in some other thought, your basal ganglia allowed you to continue driving to your destination with no effort whatsoever.

But this made me start thinking. Most of what we do every day is routine. We wake up at the same time, go to work at the same time, do the same kind of assignments, eat at the same restaurants, and kill time with the same hobbies. If our basal ganglia encodes habits, and the more and more we perform an activity the less and less we use our brains in doing so, then if there isn’t enough variety in your life, you might end up sleepwalking through it. You’re awake, but not really awake.

One thing that fascinates me is how time seems to move faster as we get older. As a kid, waiting 10 minutes could be agonizing. As an adult, sometimes I look at the clock and three hours have passed in what felt like the blink of an eye, leaving me wondering where the time has gone.

But I’ve also traveled a lot, and in traveling to a new country experienced a youth-like fascination with the world around me once again. In fact, it doesn’t even need to be a new country; simply entering an open-air environment that I’ve never been to before causes my brain to work on overdrive, processing everything that is happening around me. New environments keep our brains fresh, and prevent that sense of “speeding through time” that I think is a result of your conscious brain shutting down as the basal ganglia takes over to plow through a routine.

I’ve been living in Korea for three and a half years now, and I’ve seen this in action. My first year here, everything was novel. Life felt like an adventure. People-watching was fascinating, as well as the sights, sounds, and smells of a foreign land itself. But after living here for several years, it just feels like home to me. This is good in one sense, as I’m comfortable living here. But on the other hand, as anything becomes too much of a routine, life grows stale.

For that reason, we need to reminds ourselves to wake up every once in a while and experience the world around us from a fresh perspective. One way to do this is through traveling, but I’ve found it works just as well to remind yourself to live in the present moment. Imagine you’re a kid again. Observe the people around you, the way the trees blow in the breeze, and the bugs on the pavement. Look at the large and the small.

If you find yourself sleepwalking, wake yourself up, and remember to experience the world around you.

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