Rhythms & The Brain

Dusk brings a sense of comfort to our home. The light starts to fade, and a natural gold filters in through windows, showing glittering dust hanging lightly on air. I can feel my body start to relax. My bones know it is nearing the end of the day. Scratching my ankles, the dog looks up expectantly at me, knowing like clockwork it is time for her dinner. Our son paces in front of the basement door, waiting for his dad to come up the stairs. Hugs and babbles make up a joyful greeting. Eventually we hear giggles from his highchair as he involves all of his senses in dinner time. From the table, he commands, “Daddy, bath!” And our nightly routine continues on to bubble baths, storytime, songs, and the sweetest prayers together. He rolls into each new activity softly with anticipation. 

As humans, we are wired for predictability. Our hearts long for natural transitions. The bodies that carry us know the signs of change. Rhythm brings us toward familiarity; it keeps us moving with a steady breath in our lungs. We are not stationary in a routine, but we move forward to a new phase like the setting sun each day, with ease and comfort. 

Ceran St. Vrain Trail near Jamestown, Colorado

In neuroscience, we call these rhythms neural networks, meaning that the habits of our lives solidify in patterns that are repeated internally over and over. There are over 100 billion neurons in the human brain, a mere 3 pound powerhouse that controls your spatial awareness, memory, emotions, ideas, movements, and much more. The brain uses neurons to send messages of communication to other parts of the brain and body. To help put this process into the perspective, I visualize the brain as a large forest with interlocking trees and plants, twisted and gnarled together. The density of the forests in Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings comes to mind. At times while wandering through, the characters could hardly see the light above them. 

A neuron is like a single tree, with the branches and roots symbolizing synaptic terminals and dendrites. Like the trees in The Lord of the Rings, neurons are moving with a lifeforce. Electrical and chemical messages are sent back and forth to their neighbors along the branches. When those messages are repeated often, it is almost as though the limbs become intertwined with frequent use. This creates a neural network, built out of experience and repetition. The safety and security of relying on rhythms in our lives means that we can create space for new thoughts, new ideas, and new experiences. Neural networks and routine create automation, giving us room for a deeper meaning. 

Our world is filled with rhythms. Your body knows the rhythms to follow throughout the day, the 24-hour circadian rhythm working consistently to help you sleep and explore when the time is right. In the modern world, we’ve changed our concept of time to make our working hours match the setting sunlight. Outside my window, in the late autumn sky, you’ll see hundreds of geese practicing their rhythm of migrating to warmer weather. Here on the ground, we know what happens when the leaves change from green to gold, auburn, and rust. A chill on the wind brings forth the winter solstice full of shorter days and longer nights. Rhythms create trust in the experiences we have known and allow for anticipation. The beauty of rhythm is that it lies in our marrow and the external world; these patterns are part of the living world. They move us forward and keep us steady.