Neuroplasticity

I’ve been thinking lately that our minds are the greatest trick we pull on ourselves. Isn’t it amazing that we can have  similar physical experiences and yet perceive them quite differently because of the minds we bring? Two people go on a hike the day after a rain storm; one person cannot stop pointing out the color of the leaves, the warmth of the sun, all the birds tweeting while the other complains that the fallen leaves are slippery, the trail is all uphill, it’s muggy and she wore the wrong clothes, and yeah, a robin or whatever—won’t those #@$% birds shut up?!  (Seriously, I’ve grown since then.)

Truth is a pernicious knot, entwined somewhere between what’s physical versus mental and what we perceive versus what others perceive. It’s not so much a single thread to untie as a strategy for making peace with conflicting input, the goal being the middle way. In the end, truth is not about reaching definitive answers as much as agreeing on what we’re willing to believe.

The word willing is key. Ideas come and go, but to change a belief, particularly an old one, is hard. We have to work to fill in the grooves of our brains before we can decide to dig new trenches in other directions. Think of a story that you tell about yourself again and again. Each time you share it, you further embed the memory, enhancing it with modified details over time – you build the myth of your own experience as you go. The root story remains the same but becomes more dramatic, and the more you tell it, the more you believe, this is how it actually happened. Whether victim, bystander, hero or criminal, you become captive to the self-image you create.

The ability to alter or remap our own neural pathways, which scientists call neuroplasticity, is how we change our behavior, emotions and thinking, yet rewiring our belief-habits takes energy, awareness and the desire for change. We must be open-minded and aware that there are other truths besides those we believe. Humans are good at solving problems but not always at identifying the root cause(s) within ourselves, and even then we can be trapped in self-deceit. This leads my current investigation, namely the interrelationship between beauty, self-image and value – mental constructs that most of us struggle with at some point in our lives.

Humming between these beliefs is the stress of cognitive dissonance: my brain is trying to reconcile the idea of myself today (generally positive) with the many selves of my past, notably those whose shortcomings I felt ashamed about, the veracity of which can also be debated. While I may have left behind an awkward physical appearance or shaky self-opinion as I’ve grown, the struggles of living in the same skin with the same neural pathways runs deep. Whether physical, emotional or mental, the question I keep asking myself when I experience self-doubt is, Is this true of me today?

Awareness is key in challenging those voices from the past that turn us into battered people. When facing down old patterns of thinking, we must demand of ourselves a strict accounting, namely the acknowledgment that we are no longer in prison. Simply noting that I am the only one holding myself to this ideology is a powerful, scary thought. It makes me realize how conditioned I am to flinch at an anticipated strike that has stopped coming long ago, one partially brought on by me accepting what others said. If I am to change, I must accept new responsibilities: I must agree to take part in building and accepting the person I am today, which takes much more work.

As I investigate, I’m also coming up with some surprising (to me) underpinnings for this sense of unworthiness. I’m learning that the link between confidence and appearance actually springs from a deep-seated voice that has told me most of my life that I am less than in some way – less smart, capable, talented, creative, athletic, etc. Before I can change my beliefs and my self-perception, I have to understand what they are and where they originate. This is where my latest project begins.

In 2013, I proposed an multi-media installation called Ugly Me to Jack Straw after taking a bunch of distorted selfies with my friend, Tammie, and her daughter, Lissa, using a camera app on Tammie’s phone. Normally, I’m the first person to run away when someone breaks out a camera, but I actually had fun making myself look ugly. The fact that I was not only taking these godawful photos but sending them to Tammie and others was inexplicable. I mean, really, what the heck was I doing? It started off as an inquiry into the duality of inner and outer beauty and ugliness.

At first, I concluded it was about control, power and freedom a la Dorian Gray. Distorted selfies are ridiculous and fun, a sort of pressure valve that allows us to release our pretense of serious self-image as a mark of stature or worth. In the installation, I will juxtapose my own distorted selfies with large-scale typographic collages of fashion photography – the same pervasive media that encourages us to think (and believe) that we need to be hairless, glossy, tall and smooth in order to be beautiful. (What are we, seals?)

This is all well and good—and very much about the external; it is the easy part, if there is one. The deeper aspect to the installation are the audio recordings. Writing these pieces has been the real exploration. To that end, I’ve invited outside critique which has revealed that, even when it feels like I’m digging deep (self-deceit) I am still circling the issue on a conceptual level. I needed someone to push me into really answering my own question –why do I feel physical aversion to my own image?— in order to go deeper into my own uncomfortable experience. And it’s very uncomfortable. In fact, it was only by following that discomfort that I was able to break through my writer’s block and start making better stuff.

The details will emerge in the exhibition, which opens in exactly two months on July 10 at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery (yep, this is a teaser) but I wanted to share some of what I’m learning through this process. As I alluded in my previous post, I am realizing how early the devaluing of my self-worth started (“somewhere between six and sixteen”), which actually had less to do with my appearance and more with consistently being stripped of a voice and a sense of self-determination. Chalk some of it up to regressive parenting, but the bigger context was the social norms of how girls are expected act and what culture and society allows them to do and say.

I should add that I’m focusing on women here because that is my personal experience, but also because both sexes cling to a double-standard that is deeply ingrained. The seemingly simple and unalienable right to speak without fear of rebuke or recourse is something that we do not have cross-culturally; we’ve been talking and writing about this for millennia, from Sappho to Sheryl Sandberg, but women around the world are still fighting for agency. While some are successful in breaking through, it is not without struggle. These norms play into our collective sense of what we believe is possible and “acceptable” for women in life.

This idea of voice as a key component of self-image, particularly for women, wasn’t on my radar in 2013, nor was it on my mind in February 2015 when I began writing the prose poetry that I’ll record in a few weeks. It wasn’t even something I considered integral when I proposed the idea to Jack Straw, even though the pairing of audio recording with visual art is the main purpose of the New Media Gallery. I knew it subliminally but it was so far down in the trenches that I couldn’t know it on a conscious level. Again, awareness is key.

That’s why we must take the time to reflect on, examine and –most importantly– share our voices, not to complain but to create opportunities of learning for others. Within our human potential we have the power to explore discomfort without crumbling, to risk revealing ourselves, and we must. Maybe it’s one of the benefits of entering middle age, but my anthem lately is, We cannot remain quiet. I keep coming back to BinderCon and 99U  – What does our culture and the world lose when women’s voices go silent? – and what might we gain if we harness the courage and encouragement to speak?

I’ll admit that I’m nervous about getting emotionally naked in the dark—reading confessional poems and a posting bunch of ugly pictures of myself for the public to see—but the burden already feels a little lighter simply for the idea of sharing it. I think this installation is making me a little more neuroplastic, and I hope that others feel the same way when they experience it. (Spoiler alert: Ugly Me will invite you to post your own photos and confessions, so break out those selfie sticks.)

When I finally agree that I no longer need to hold all this heavy shit by myself in the dark, the journey will get easier, but it is a journey and I acknowledge that it will happen in stages. This week, for instance, I was notified that an essay that I wrote in 2009 is going to be published next month in Bird’s Thumb. In a stroke of timing, “Shifting Gears” is very much about all of this — silence, self-worth and knowing when to walk away from the prisons we make. Re-reading this piece made me realize that, while I had outside influence, my struggle with value is a story I’ve told myself over and over until it became my truth, if an undesirable one.

After sending materials to the editor, I was faced with this old thinking, flinching when she wrote back, “We’ve received your (adorable, by the way) and your bio.” My friend, Nick, had to take hundreds of photos in order to find the one I feel good about using in promotional materials. That flinch of embarrassment reminded me that my perception of my own outsides (and inner value) is different from what other people perceive; it also made me really want to let go of this old, scarred habit.

When I think about neuroplasticity, I imagine gum tissue after a tooth is extracted: first, there’s a raw, open pit where something used to be, but eventually it is replaced by healthy pink tissue ready for new implanting. I can imagine poking at the deep grooves as they repair, like running one’s tongue over the hole where something is missing and healing at the same time. It takes time, but eventually one day it’s possible to start anew.

To that end, I replied to the editor’s email, “Aw shucks, thanks,” and left it at that.

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One thought on “Neuroplasticity

  1. Grazie tanto for expressing and sharing your voice–and ALL of you–with us, your friends and your audience. Especially important for us as women to stand up, speak our truths, and show the fallacies of the “cultural complex” which tries in so many ways to reduce women to the sum of their parts and what Madison Avenue cooks up as what is “beautiful and feminine”!
    Keep speaking up and writing it all down…..XOXOO

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