Our previous post ‘Of Thumbs and Monkeys’ looked at some basic physiological examples of the principle that ‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’ We’ve also explored the relevance this has for the smells associated with those of the opposite sex.
This phenomenon doesn’t just apply to fingers or to our relationships with the opposite sex, but has enormous psychological implications.
One of the reasons the bond between a child and mother is so strong is because the presence of mother is associated with the provision of food, warmth and comfort. When the part of the brain associated with food, comfort and warmth fires up, this happens simultaneous with the part of the brain associated with mother firing up. This is one of the reasons why simply being in mother’s presence can have a calming effect on a young child.
In his book Synaptic Self, Joseph LeDoux gives a help summary, based on the research of Donald Hebb, of what is going on in the brain to consulate these and other associations:
“In 1949, Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist, proposed that if two neurons are active at the same time, and one of presynaptic to the other, then the connection between them will be strengthened. In Hebb’s words, ‘When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite cell B or repeatedly and consistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic changes take place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.’ The essence of Hebb’s idea is captured by the slogan, ‘Cells that fire together wire together.’
This principle of ‘fire together, wire together’ can also lead to a number of pathologies and lies at the root of various abnormal psychologies. For example, if one’s first experience of sexuality is coupled with aggression and abuse, this can have a potentially lasting effect on how the brain perceives sexuality.
Or again, those who suffer from sadist and masochistic tendencies are usually those who have had experiences that wire together the pain and pleasure systems of the brain—systems that are normally separate.
Successful therapy for these and other symptoms of abnormal psychology often involves breaking these harmful associations and establishing new ones. But more about that in a future post as we delve deeper into the psychological implications ‘fire together, wire together.’