Think of a brain…

By Christopher Spriggs of ‘Heads Up Now


Think of a brain. What does it look like? A deflated leather football perhaps, or a wrinkled bottom. It’s probably not our most attractive physical feature so thank goodness it’s tucked away inside our skull. It’s amazing what that ‘deflated football’ contains isn’t it? A quadrillion neural connections (that’s a one with 15 zeroes after it) – connections which help you tie your shoe laces, boil the kettle, and attempt a foreign language.

Neuroscience, in recent years, has given us insights into what these neural connections look like. Are we surprised that our ‘neural maps’ don’t represent a tidy library, with everything stored and categorised sequentially. No wonder we find it hard to “think straight” sometimes. In fact – if you’ve seen the images – our brain is intra-connected with dynamic, overlapping and ever-evolving octopus-like structures. (For reassurance – I didn’t just say there IS an octopus inside your brain, just it looks that way. Don’t go using that as your next excuse when you forget something…).

Why does this matter?
We are inundated with data regarding the escalating crisis in mental health services, most especially for young people: a sixfold increase in problems over the last 20 years according to a report this week. I don’t know what your primary focus is – the issue that really gets your attention – but the question at the heart of our business, Heads Up Now, is: How can we support young people – and those who work with them – to think, feel and perform at their best, more often and more easily?

Those gangly octopus-leg-type things in our brain network are known as ‘dendrites’ – which comes from the Greek word for ‘tree’. Now, I went walking in the Peak Forest last week. Me, a flask of tea, a copy of Robert Macfarlane’s “The Wild Places” and a map. Sauntering around Ladybower reservoir I noticed how dense and imposing a forest can be; the multiple, messy matrix of nature existing above and beneath the surface; I noticed how the forest is always moving, as-if alive (which of course it is). There was so much decay and decomposition, but also tiny things beginning and – above all – a majestic stillness. The forest breathes, grows and fulfils its function in the context of silence.

You may know that our word for ‘noise’ comes from the same root as ‘noxious’ and ‘nausea’ – perhaps this is telling us something? Too much noise sickens our mind; Silence can feed it. So – it’s good to know that the ‘deflated leather football’ inside our skull, that we take around with us all day long, is always busy with life. (It knows how to keep you breathing when you’re asleep, thank goodness). You can trust your mind to do certain things all by itself.

But like a healthy, dynamic, rich-with-life forest, it also craves some quiet. Improving our own mental health can include turning off the noise: the TV, radio, iPlayer, and our own relentless mental chit-chat. Those things aren’t always bad. But why not give your mind a breather? Go for a walk, notice nature, let it remind you about the bigger thing you’re part of. The octopus in your head will thank you for it.


Christopher Spriggs is the founder of Heads Up Now, which offers coaching and support for young people, teachers and leaders to think, feel and perform at their best, more often and more easily.
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