Saturday, 6 October 2012

Changing Brains

In the last few years I've increasingly enjoyed doing and learning and being exposed to new life experiences. I've undertaken new studies, become more community involved, increased my fitness level, taken up hiking and the challenges that carrying everything you need to hike and camp overnights in wilderness areas requires, facilitated new workshops, written a book, begun to "blog"( and to learn all the computer formatting that goes with that), learnt to Latin dance, taken regular holidays to new destinations........
Some things are complete and some I continue regularly.
Lots of times I was a bit out of my comfort zone-  and certainly my knowledge and ability zone ! But I found that the more I did things that  may have initially caused me to think, "I'd love to do that but I couldn't manage that," the more joy I got from finding a way I could do them. And finding that seemed to shift me into thinking, "I'd love to do that, so how can I work that into my life?"  When you have a family and a business to take care of it's pretty common to think things beyond that are unachievable, but I'm so fortunate to have learnt otherwise. Sometimes it took saving money, sometimes rearranging my time, sometimes I had to wait for a better time to begin. I know that it has been great for me and as a result I think it made me a better parent (to set that example of balance and achievement and all is possible to my children), a better partner, friend, therapist, manager, and I'm happier with myself. So that further reinforces, for me, how right it is to learn new skills.
And this week I began to read an amazing book "The Brain that Changes Itself", by Norman Doidge MD, and began to realise another reason why having new challenges and experiences is so good for me.
In his book he outlines (in lay terms) the fairly new science of Neuroplasticity- the ability our brains have to grow and repair and develop new brain (neural) pathways as we age. "Neuro" means brain, and "Plasticity" refers to the change (in the brain) as these new pathways develop. He speaks with Neurologists, behaviourists, scientists and outlines their findings and current amazing applications of this work. The premise behind Neuroplasticity( that resonated with me) is that as we age areas of the brain do cease to function well or at all (he makes references to Alzheimer's disease, dementia, stroke and other brain injury, Parkinson's disease.....) but that with the stimulation of learning new skills, areas adjacent to the poorly functioning areas in the brain do develop, grow and take over!  And the problem is no more! Accurately he, and the experts he interviews, points out that the learning of new experiences is commonplace in the pre-middle-age years- as babies and children we are learning constantly about everything in our world, as teenagers our worlds change and more experiences are learnt, in early adult life we might attend University, become employed and again learn many new ideas, then we "marry", have children, learn how to live independently and learn how to live with and care for others. But often at middle age we are more comfortable in career, home, relationships and probably a little tired, and we come to a period of rest with regard to learning new things. So our brain ceases to grow and develop new neural pathways. And this happens to even very clever people like Drs and Lawyers etc because it is the learning of new concepts that create plasticity, not working with the same ones.
Based on this new work there are centres in the US ( and online- www.positscience) where teams of Drs and scientists offer learning programs specific to help everything from forgetfulness, to recovery from stroke, to Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease.
Of course it also has amazing applications for children with learning disabilities and autism, and the centre is having wonderful outcomes with these problems. The book outlines lots of case studies, success stories and the underlying message is to challenge your brain on a regular basis. That means daily for an hour or so I believe.
So I now have even more reason to continue to explore new ideas and learn new skills. "Use it or lose it" applies to the mind as well as the body.

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