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By Julia Gumm

It’s a seventeen year cicada summer in my neck of the woods and these insects are frickin’ weird. They emit sounds that nothing born of this particular blue green marble suspended in space has any business making. I swear they’re calling the mothership.

I don’t know why exactly they sing a song that sounds uncannily like a phaser on classic Star Trek, but I do know that they burrow underground and emerge every seventeen years as a way to throw off predators. Such a long, prime numbered life cycle makes it basically impossible for predators on even numbered life cycles to expect their arrival. Since these cicadas are big, delicious and have little in the way of a personal defense system, the strategy is to arrive in droves all at once when no one is expecting them. Sure, lots of them will be eaten, but enough will survive to go back underground for another seventeen years when the class of 2030 has their turn to swamp the northeast.

Pretty neat, huh? Other hypothesized reasons like climate factors and avoidance of other cicadas to prevent cross-breeding are probable reasons as well. This stuff fascinates me. These little buggers were conditioned to a certain environment, a certain reality- and they adapted to it in a weird, but apparently successful way.

It got me thinking about people.

You could no more get a cicada to come out on an off year than you could get a typical American to willingly trade out their Sealy Posturpedic for a traditional Japanese floor mat. Even if in the long term, sleeping on a floor mat could improve the health of the American, it would take a painful adjustment period to get used to it- physically and mentally. That American spine is not conditioned to the rigidness of the floor, and that American brain thinks the whole idea is nuts. But after awhile, Mr. U.S.A might very well become quite accustomed to his floor mat. Might think sleeping on a big expensive bed is a gratuitous waste of money and feels like being eaten by a giant marshmallow. It’s just a matter of conditioning.

Everything on earth is conditioned to it’s environment. Everything we do is informed by the experiences we’ve had so far. If a tree lacks sunshine, it bends to find it. If a child is abused, it’s circuits remain on alert to expect it. If you haven’t exercised in months and jump right into your old workout routine, instead of feeling strong and refreshed like you used to, you’ll feel like you’re about to keel over and die. It’s all conditioning. In a very real way, you are literally not the person who used to do that workout anymore. You have to build back up to it. Everything we do, everything we don’t do, affects our daily adaptive response. It’s such a simple concept, but perhaps one we overlook.

If you look at yourself and see ways in which you wish you were different but feel it’s too hard or insurmountable, don’t despair. No really, don’t despair. Because despair is depressing and it just reinforces the brain’s concept of it’s capabilities. The field of neuroplasticity is finding that the brain actually rewires itself to accomodate the thoughts and feelings it’s being bombarded with. If you devote your brain’s capacity to worry, fear and shame, that’s what it gets good at. Just like weight lifting increases your capacity to lift things, getting down on yourself increases your tendency to be down.

On the flipside, thinking good thoughts enhances your brain’s capacity to do so effortlessly. I know it might be hard to start, but once you get the momentum of thinking positively about yourself, you will be training your mind to do that regularly. If you spend your day silently talking down to yourself or thinking anxious thoughts, all you’re doing is
building structures in the brain that facilitate that kind of thinking, which will inevitably become your norm.

When we want to make big changes in our lives, the necessary steps to do them can be overwhelming. I personally am looking to make a sort of 180 degree turn in my own life, and I am totally scared shitless. Not only that, but I’m disappointed in what I perceive as my lack of adaptability. When I was seventeen, I could change paths on a dime, with ease and immediate results. But you know what, the longer we think in certain patterns, exercise daily routines and interact with certain people, the more we become pros at living that life- and not another. Changing things up can be very difficult, even painful. Sometimes your goals seem elusive. Sometimes it seems nearly impossible to give up unhealthy habits, lifestyles, relationships, even if the long-term benefits are obvious.

But take heart. You are a magic machine and you can feed your brain new data and new experiences and it will rewire itself to get good at it- and you’re never too old to change. If you want to be able to hike long distances but are at a point where you tire out after a half mile, do not worry. Don’t wistfully sigh in disappointment, thinking of how you’ll never be able to do that 20 mile stretch in the Appalachians you long to complete. Just keep doing your half mile. Your muscles will strengthen, your lungs will open, your brain will get accustomed to the idea of being a walker. And then a day will come when you complete your half mile and a message calls across your synapses- “I feel like going further!” And you will. And then who knows, maybe you’ll go further yet. Maybe you’ll get into the mountains. But the key is persistence and reprogramming.

Everything you do conditions you to become adept at doing it. Keep that in mind when you spend time with someone who brings you down, spend all day sitting around on the computer or devote hours to trash talking your coworkers. Because whatever you consistently do, that’s what becomes your native talent. You are a machine that redefines its function everyday, simply by what you think and do. You are at the helm, your brain is at the mercy of the conscious will. Within reason, maybe that bit of hopeful elementary school propaganda is true. Maybe we really can do anything we wish, if we just put our minds to it.

What are you putting your mind to today?

(I don’t know if the seventeen year cicada intro fits into this all that well, but I’m really into the little weirdos and had to give ‘em a shout out! Hey cicadas! Don’t be a stranger!)