Rewiring the brain

Who moved my paper towel?

minds matter

Sree Mitra

May 24, 2024

When we moved to our new house, right before COVID hit, I set up the kitchen Six Sigma style – where should the silverware be, what’s the most convenient spot for the spices, how can I get to the pots and pans with the least amount of movement, and most importantly, where should I place the paper towel holder!

I decided to keep it on the right side of the sink, within easy reach in case of a spill.

Fast forward to a few months back, I read an article that said, to keep the brain engaged, we should move small things around the house. The scientific rationale was – instead of the brain being on autopilot constantly, it will have to actively look for things that had moved from its original place.

I decided to do an experiment – I moved the paper towel holder from the right side of the sink to the left side of the sink.

It’s been almost 6 months since I made that small change. You would think I would have gotten used to the new placement. Well… I am still reaching to the right side. Every. Single. Time. And then the brain wakes up – “The paper towel is not there. Where did it go? Look for it. Oh! It’s right there two feet away!”

Even though this whole internal dialogue takes a second, nonetheless, the brain is still having to figure out the new location.

Do you see what’s happening here?

  1. The brain has built a pathway over the last 4 years to reach for the paper towel on the right side of the sink. Even with 6 months of trying to tell it differently, as its first instinct, the brain decides to go back to the familiar pathway.
  2. I have a strong visible cue – i.e. the paper towel right in front of my eyes – yet the brain ignores it and chooses the neural pathway it has built.

So, what does this mean (other than that I continue to be confused in the kitchen)?

It’s important to take the time to reflect on what pathways our brains have developed over the years that are not serving us anymore. The pathways that maybe at one point made sense but are now leading us to actions that doesn’t give us the desirable outcomes.

In my paper towel story, at least I have the darn thing right in my sight, and I correct my action. But think about it – when the pathways are behavioral / emotional responses / thoughts, we may not always have a tangible correction to alert us. What cues can we then build to correct the patterns? Because, trust me, unless we keep at it, correcting every single time, we will go back the path well-trodden.

Try this experiment out.

Make a small shift with something around you. Or better still, make a small shift in your emotional response to a situation that keeps coming up and leaves you distressed. Consciously notice the effort the brain has to go through to remind itself of the new path you have chosen.

Let’s keep those brain muscles building and evolving for the better!

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