In case you haven’t noticed, I am fascinated by the brain and write about it frequently. That might be because I’m a woman in my early sixties, had a mother diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her early 70’s, and have a sister just a couple of years older than me that constantly affirms, “I can’t remember anything!” and then does her best to prove it. So, for several reasons including the fact that I’m a writer, I’ve grown attached to my brain and it’s creativity and strive to discover everything I can to help it stay healthy and functioning. As it turns out, we can do plenty. But we have to be willing to take care of and exercise our brains just like we do our bodies, or we’ll likely get whatever chance throws our way.
I never thought too much about it when I was younger. Chances are good if you are under 40 you haven’t either. But there is an abundance of evidence that proves what you do consistently (even when you are young) will make a difference when you do get older—and guess what? You will get older (consider the alternative!). A research psychologist named Mark Rosenzweig did some of the most well-known and documented studies that prove the neuroplasticity of the brain. He verified that the brain continues to develop anatomically throughout life and can reshape and repair itself based on life experiences.
The majority of Rosenzweig’s results were studies done on rats. He and his followers showed that rats placed in cages with toys, ladders, tunnels, running wheels and other varied and unique environments had brains that faired far better than the average “caged” rat. Specifically, the brains of the “stimulated” rats contained larger amounts of a chemical called acetylcholine that is essential for learning. Plus, the playful rats had a cerebral cortex that was 5% heavier and brain volume that was 25% bigger. Beyond rats, it’s now been shown that the more education (learning of all types) a person has, the larger number of branches in neurons. All of these indicators show that many people with learning disabilities or other more problematic brain disorders can often change and be reworked to function at a much higher capacity. It also shows that the rest of us, who just want to improve or preserve the functionality of our brains, can do so.
Two of the most dramatic examples of this are offered in the book “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, M.D. The first comes from a neuroscientist named Paul Bach-y-Rita, whose father suffered a major stroke at 65. Paul’s brother George began working with his father daily, long after traditional stroke rehabilitation usually occurs. George asked his dad to spend hours every day for a year turning normal life experiences into exercises. Within one year, the father went from not being able to walk, speak or go to the bathroom by himself—to returning to work as a teacher at a local community college. It took strong concentrated effort and long hours, but he was able to return to almost normal functioning. The most amazing thing was that after he died nearly 10 years later, they did an autopsy and revealed that the initial stroke had been massive, and until that time, considered completely incapacitating.
Another example in the book is a woman named Barbara Arrowsmith Young who was born in the early 1950s and was considered both physically and mentally retarded. Although blessed with a brilliant memory and a couple of other talents, it was only with highly concentrated effort and her mother’s help, that she was able to finish high school, college and then graduate school as well. Eventually she explored the details of her own learning disability. Encouraged by others doing work on the brain, she began drilling and exercising her brain in the areas where she was most challenged. She found that when she spent countless hours perfecting her “weak” brain functions in one area, most of the other weak areas improved as well. She currently has completely recovered from all of her former learning dysfunctions, and now runs a world-famous school with programs for other children and adults that struggle with similar issues as well as autism. Young’s story of transformation is inspiration for anyone who needs encouragement for their life—and especially those with exceptional brain challenges.
Doidge’s book contains a handful of other equally inspiring stories of brain transformation. But none of the recoveries were quick and easy. In fact, just as no one become an athlete by working out for a week or two, or no one becomes an expert at anything by taking a weekend course. All the brain rewiring and relearning took hours of concentrated effort. Just like Malcolm Gladwell “10,000-Hour-Rule” explained in his book, Outliers, it takes about 10,000 hours to become a success or be an expert at anything. Changing the very fabric of your brain is possible, but not without effort.
A problem of course is that most adults stop learning anything new after a certain age. Think about it. It is said that few adults ever read a full-length book once they graduate from high school or college. In fact, in today’s technology-driven lifestyle, most people don’t read anything except a tweet or sound bite here or there. Not only do people look to TV or the internet for their information, they watch the same news station, the same programs, vote the same political party, talk to the same people, and just reprocess the same info day after day after day. Just like rats in an “average” cage, their brains deteriorate and they age quickly.
It’s been said that humans think about 50,000 to 65,000 thoughts per day. Unfortunately, about 95% are the same thoughts we had yesterday and the day before. Even though the brain is an amazing biological wonder that even the largest and most expensive computer cannot replicate, many use it in the most dull, routine and uninspired manner possible. It’s like having a Lamborghini and driving it only in first gear. In most ways, the term couch potato can apply to both our bodies and our brains. If we continue to allow our brains, just like our bodies, to be vegetables, we should not be surprised when we can’t seem to do or think of anything else.
Two highlights of SMART Living are practicing sustainability and responsibility. Both of those remind us to maintain and use what we have for as long as we inhabit this world—and yeah, that includes your brain. I’ve written about it before and in future posts you can be sure that I will be offering more ways to continue the practice. I don’t know about you, but I intend to keep my brain busy, happy and “exercised” from here on out!
“Recent studies have shown a tremendous variability in how well people age and how, to a large extent, our actions influence our rate of brain improvement and/or decline. The earlier we begin the better. And it is never too late.” ~ Alvaro Fernandez, SharpBrains.
“He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche