The brain is not as delicate as we might imagine. It spends its life creating connections (synapses) between cells (neurons), and it’s those synapses that mark us out. Despite the fact that the number of synapses and neurons is constantly deteriorating, we seem to have neurons to spare, each with an average 7,000 connections to other brain cells.
On the other hand. I watch my kids draw pictures, learn music, dance and sport, learn about the alphabet and life. I see the connections slowly form. But I also see that this process reduces their sponteneity, their imagination. Channels it and reduces it. The power of the organic brain over the electronic one lies in our associative abilities – being able to freely make connections between ideas.
While watching my daughter at her piano lessons, it struck me that while learning helps people develop useful patterns of action or behaviour, that same process grinds our behaviour along those pathways that are gradually worn into our brains. We have less of a struggle making sense of their world, but more of a struggle breaking free of those restrictions.
At the piano, we practice and practice, and grind in the pathways that tell our fingers what to do. As the lesson is learnt, we then have the opportunity to create, to put our own emotion into the work. We can veer – slightly – off the pathways. But never far off, and the lesson has to be refreshed.
It is hard to dispute the value in learning rules so we can break them. Without those rules, what we do, what we produce is less meaningful, less useful. But at the same time, the instilling of those rules plays a part in stifling our free association, our imagination. Maybe the answer lies in our capability to balance the lessons learnt and the breaking free from them. Of course, it's easier to stay within the bounds of the lesson than to escape.
Disclaimers: Although my brain retains a useful associative ability, I’m as guilty as the rest of us at learning lessons and not travelling beyond. And I haven't gone far enough with the piano to express or extemporise.