Last spring my daughter was slated to perform her very first ballet Variation in the spring show (a variation is a classical ballet solo). She is a very hard worker and this was a big milestone in her dance career. Sewing the dance costume fell to yours truly, so I set myself to piecing together the fabric, hand stitching the skirt onto the tutu, as well as attaching the sequined decorations by hand onto the leotard. It was a labor of love that took many hours–still a small thing compared to the work Evelyn put into the dance itself, but I was proud of my work, and more importantly, Evelyn loved it.
Then the day of the show arrived… and it was POURING RAIN! How were we going to get the costume up to the performance venue without it getting drenched? Not only did Evelyn need the costume to be dry for the performance, but the rain would ruin the fabric. I managed to–gently–wrangle the tutu into a giant garbage bag–no small feat. Then I had a new worry. Now we had a trash bag sitting around the house looking like, well, a trash bag! Except that this trash bag had a veritable treasure in it. I did what any reasonable person would do: I took a giant red marker and wrote all over the side of the bag: EVELYN’S DANCE COSTUME. DO NOT THROW AWAY!!!!
This morning I had a revelation while listening to Benedict Carey’s book How We Learn, specifically the chapter entitled You snooze, you win! Benedict Carey was describing sleep science discoveries about how the brain processes the information it has taken in during the last waking period. The brain discards an enormous number of neural connections every time we sleep, but how does the brain know which neural connections to discard and which ones to keep? How does it separate the signal from the noise?
Our brain recognizes and processes an astonishing amount of information every day. I live on a busy street and as I write this, I can hear traffic going by in front of our house. My brain recognizes the sound of passing cars and files it somewhere in my head: hopefully the recycle bin. But is that sound always unimportant? If I were down at the street trying to cross to the other side, those same sounds would become necessary tools for my brain’s task. And if I were stranded in the desert, waiting to hear the sound of a nearby vehicle might be a matter of life and death.
But the cool thing is that when we are doing everyday tasks that don’t affect our immediate survival, we have agency to decide for ourselves what is important, and what is not. By concentrating on something, spending time letting our brains “wallow” in it, so to speak–by literally caring about it as we do it–we create a virtual earmark on a particular action. To use a musical example of playing middle C on the piano, it’s not just saying, “I care about playing middle C”, but it’s caring about the name of the note, caring about the way it looks on the piano, caring about the way it sounds, caring about how far my hand traveled to get there, caring about which finger I used, caring about the speed and weight in my hand as I depress the key. All that caring lets our brain know that this is not something to toss in the dumpster. It’s our red marker on the trash bag: DO NOT THROW AWAY!
Whether you’re practicing a Beethoven sonata, exploring a new technique for a heart procedure, honing a tennis serve, learning dance choreography, finding a more ergonomic way to swing a heavy trash can up into the back of a trash truck, or–like me at the moment: trying to learn how to sit properly and comfortably at a computer desk–you create neural connections when you do physical actions intentionally. And the best part of all: when you sleep afterwards, your brain gets rid of all the clutter, but keeps the neural connections that you decided were important–the ones that you took ownership of. The ones you cared about. Mind blown.
My “tutu trash bag” story would doubtless be a lot more exciting if someone had accidentally tossed the bag in the dumpster, but I’m happy to say everything came off without a hitch and Evelyn danced beautifully. Nearly a year later, the costume is still housed (safely) in a trash bag with very clear red lettering on the outside. And I believe Evelyn still remembers the choreography of that dance as well–it was marked in her brain as: IMPORTANT: DO NOT THROW AWAY!
This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin
How We Learn by Benedict Carey
Inspired in part by “Pierre” by Maurice Sendak (poem)