Transcendence through Second Life

Changing your mind

It was time to catch up a bit more on the latest advances of neurology and psychology and see what people have been thinking recently about how the brain — and more importantly, how the mind — works. However, their answers were not so satisfying. These days, we definitely know that the brain doesn’t “freeze” into place at all — it’s always plastic and flexible all the time, even though it might lose some of that flexibility close to our physical death. But “losing a bit of plasticity” is quite different from stating that it loses its ability to change!

In my teens, I was also taught that the peak of mental activity in humans is around the time the body reaches full adulthood, and it declines from then on inevitably. This encouraged students to get their PhD and write their thesis before their 30th birthday, because, so I was told, after that you simply don’t have the mental agility to come up with earth-shattering new theories. Examples abound on scientists who did their masterwork around that age but never came up with anything new after that.

Now this is plainly wrong. Anedoctal evidence has always showed me the reverse to be more correct. One of my best friends has just completed his PhD — with close to 80 years. In my country, most architects never become famous before they’re 65 — they simply don’t have enough experience to do great works of art before that. One of our most famous movie director is 102 years old and faithfully produces a movie every year. All of those examples are of people doing their work better, not worse. The difference between them and others who really look like they have lost some mental abilities, assuming that loss is not due to illness or accident, is that they continue to exercise their brains regularly.

In SL, this is even more true. Most of my best friends are all over 50 years of age; many are over 60; some over 80. They exhibit absolutely no “lessening” of mental abilities. They’re able to learn how SL works and to use it every day as quickly as a teenager — specially way more quickly than teenagers who spend half their lifes watching TV. So it’s clearly not a function of “age”, but more a function of using your brain. If you let go of “brainy activities”, you’ll lose mental abilities, but that can happen when you’re 13 or 113.

Taking this for granted, the question then is really how this mind-changing business is accomplished. The answer, of course, is easy. Just remember when you first start taking driving lessons. By repeating the same movements over and over, they become, so to speak, “second nature”. There is no magic going on there: our brains can learn, after all, and all they do is to wire and rewire neuronal connections. We all know that.

However, one thing that was not clear to me was what kind of things can be learned. I always associated the “learning” process to physical skills (like driving a car, or painting a house), but clearly we can do much more abstract things, like maths. The way we “train” something to “learn” it seems to be similar: we repeat, over and over again, some activity we’re doing, be it physical or mental (in the sense of “abstract”), and at some point, with enough practice, we can accomplish it with little effort. Granted, different people will learn different things at different rates; some things might be overly complex to be learned quickly, some we might never learn. Others — like for instance learning our first language — are common to us all, and we pretty much take the same amount of time (on average) learning it.

About this time, I remembered my teenager days, when I definitely changed my self… or perhaps I should now be a bit more precise. I don’t really know, after these pages, what my self “is”. All I know is that I had a lot of fears when I was young (like the fear to speak in public, the fear to sound silly and behave inappropriately, the fear to stand up for something I believed in), and I definitely had a lot of expectations and hopes (I wished to become less shy, I wished to get a partner, I wished not to be seen as an idiot, I wished to be popular, I wished to be a talented artist, and so forth… I had quite a lot of wishes!). What I did was to shuffle these around. At the beginning, it was a daunting task — how does oneself “wishes” to become less shy? If I feared to speak in public, how could I overcome that fear?

Instead, I did something quite more subtle. I started to care less about what I feared, and hope less about what I wished. Instead of fearing audiences — mostly because I feared to be seen as the idiot I was — I just didn’t care so much if people thought I was an idiot or not. I just went ahead and said what I had to say. Sure, people still looked at me in a menacing way, but I cared less about that. Sure, some even thought I was more idiot than before — but I didn’t care so much of making a fool of myself. And the same was true about my other wishes: I didn’t have any talent in painting, sculpting, playing an instrument, composing music… so an artistic career was out of the question. I could still write, even if I wouldn’t have any hopes of getting published, or make a living out of that. So that became, all of a sudden, less important. Just because everybody in my circle of friends would become successful artists, that didn’t mean that I had to become one too, or, worse, become frustrated with the idea that I had no talent whatsoever. And so forth.

So by giving a little less importance to all those things, I might not have changed my “self” (whatever that might be), but I most certainly changed the way I thought about myself. It’s like having lived all my life up to then with a mask I hated and despised, but the only thing I did was to take a good look at this mask and ask myself: “what’s so terrible about it? It’s just a mask. Who cares? Nobody but me; so if I don’t care about it either, I won’t be frustrated.” Surprisingly — very surprisingly, in fact — this worked well, even though I thought it would be quite impossible to do again. What was the secret? Over a whole year, I just focused on looking at the mask differently. Every day I thought about caring less and less about how ugly that mask was. After a year or so, well, I really didn’t care much about it any more.

Sounds too simple? Or like magic? Well, I just attributed it to the plasticity of the mind when one’s young, and, as said, I didn’t expect it to work again.

I was so wrong. 🙂

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