Embracing The Challenge Of Change
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be an attack, but instead a learning opportunity largely pulled from my experiences and acknowledgement of my privilege.
The Black Lives Matter protests happening all over the world are forcing attention to systemic racism that has too long been overlooked by those with the privilege to do so.
Perhaps for your whole life, you’ve believed that chameleons change color to match their environment. At some point, you obtained this information and, over the years, reinforced it. Eventually you are confronted with the science- backed information that chameleons are naturally camouflaged to their environment and change color based on their moods. This may be hard to swallow. Your first response may be to stubbornly dismiss this newfound information because it contradicts what you have “known” for so long. Next you should be skeptical, research this topic on your own, and find the truth. Once this information is confirmed the process of changing your brain can begin.
Learning this information creates a new neural pathway, these pathways are how information travels in your brain. When the new information is received neurons like the one above connect. The connection point, called the synapse, is where they communicate. Hebb’s law states that when you connect this new information to something already established and have both neurons active the synapse is strengthened. The process that leads to the strengthening of the synapse and confirms Hebb’s law is long-term potentiation (LTP). LTP is the prolonged and repeated activation of a neuron that is initially mediated by the post-synaptic neuron’s NMDA receptors. Once the NMDA receptors are activated the LTP can begin and the connection is further established allowing the new information to pass more efficiently .
At the point of learning the new neural pathway is protected and insulated by myelin sheath. When a message travels down an axon it is in an electrical form; the myelin sheath speeds up the electrical signal by keeping the voltage steady . Once this is established our brain leaves it up to us to facilitate the battle of might between old and new information.
By using this new information in conversations and connecting it to other ideas you can reinforce the connection and strengthen access to it. However, the pathways of the old information are still present. Practice and repetition will aid the new information and neglect of the old information can lead to long-term depression (LTD). LTD is the lack of synaptic activation between neurons, which can lower the efficiency of the neural pathway . The accumulation of these processes over time will leave you with quick access to the new information and recognition of the old information as incorrect or irrelevant.
Let us now connect this to current events. Perhaps your life that has wrapped you in the comfort of privilege and kept you unaware of the systemic racism taking place in the United States. You are confused by the Black Lives Matter statement and don’t see why All Lives Matter is not acceptable. Someone comes to you and proposes the house on fire analogy illustrated below.
This should stir up questions within you and lead you to doing your research. The conclusion you find is that all lives cannot matter until Black Lives Matter and the systemic racism embedded within our country is blocking equity for the Black community. Though it may initially be difficult to conceive that racism is as bitterly hostile as ever in this country you now have the information you need to form new neural connections and change your brain. LTP can occur by getting into conversations about race and using your newfound knowledge. With the myelin sheath strengthened the new pathway can be quickly accessed and LTD can decrease the efficiency of the old pathway. Then don’t stop, keep doing research to learn more about ways in which you can be anti-racist and uplift the Black community strengthening both your neural pathway and the pathway to a just society.
Oftentimes we think of building positive habits as going to the gym every day, but what about the habit of correcting ourselves when we say things incorrectly? Perhaps your entire life, you’ve said ‘those ones’ rather than ‘those.’ Eventually, you are corrected by friends (you really have great friends). Once you accept this new information new neural pathways are formed and the battle of might between the pathways of new and old can begin again. You have researched, LTP has occurred, myelin sheath are strong and it is time to utilize this information for yourself and others. If you make the mistake of using the old incorrect expression, recognize and correct it. If you notice people making the mistake in conversation gently correct them, therefore spreading the knowledge to others and reinforcing your updated neural pathways and the degradation of the old.
Let us again connect this to current events. It is possible that you have grown accustomed to saying things that are racial micro-aggressions. Since they have gone unaddressed for so long, you have greatly enhanced the neural connections associated with them. Then, an illuminating study observed micro-aggressions in a racially mixed group. An important takeaway from this study that perpetrators of micro-aggressions need to understand is that the Black community has to face a lifetime of these aggressions and the accumulation causes the victim to exhaust energy over fighting for their mere personhood . After reading this research and understanding the impact your words have on others, it’s again time to change your brain. It is impressive how much power and control you have! Just like correcting your grammar, you need to admit fault when you make a micro-aggression and correct yourself. In this case it should likely be accompanied by an apology to the victim of your statement. To further strengthen this new neural pathway, you also need to recognize this mistake in the language of others, regardless of the presence of a victim, and educate the perpetrator. This helps your neural pathway make new connections and grow stronger.
With all things above, practice is key and rest helps . You will meet resistance in yourself and others, but do not cease to make yourself better and uplift the Black community in this fight for equality and systemic change. One of the most influential things you can do is bring all this into your home, talk to your mom, uncle, and your bestie about racism and try to educate them.
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe” – Frederick Douglass
- Collingridge, G. L., & Bliss, T. V. P. (1995). Memories of NMDA receptors and LTP. Trends in Neurosciences, 18(2), 54–56. doi:10.1016/0166-2236(95)80016-u
- Bunge, R. P. (1968). Glial cells and the central myelin sheath. Physiological Reviews, 48(1), 197–251. doi:10.1152/physrev.1918.104.22.168
- Collingridge, G. L., Peineau, S., Howland, J. G., & Wang, Y. T. (2010). Long-term depression in the CNS. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11(7), 459–473. doi:10.1038/nrn2867
- Christine Schmidt (2018): Anatomy of Racial Micro-Aggressions, International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, DOI: 10.1080/00207284.2017.1421469
- Gais, S. (2004). Declarative memory consolidation: Mechanisms acting during human sleep. Learning & Memory, 11(6), 679–685. doi:10.1101/lm.80504
- Featured Image by Tyler Elise https://www.tylerelise.com/