A WRITER'S WIT
You first parents of the human race . . . who ruined yourself for an apple, what might you not have done for a truffled turkey?
Born April 1, 1755
My Book World
I don’t often read “science” books, but I was tempted away from literature by my partner to read this one. Dr. Doidge, through years of research, proves that the human brain is capable of being rewired, even after being damaged, even in old age!
Neuro is for “neuron,” the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems. Plastic is for “changeable, malleable, modifiable.” At first many of the scientists didn’t dare use the word “neuroplasticity” in their publications, and their peers belittled them for promoting a fanciful notion (xix).
The brain exercises are life-transforming. One American graduate told me that when he came to the school at thirteen, his math and reading skills were still at a third-grade level. He had been told after neuropsychological testing at Tufts University that he would never improve . . . after three years at Arrowsmith, he was reading and doing math at a tenth-grade level (41).
Language development, for instance, has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as in the native tongue (52).
If two languages are learned at the same time, during the critical period, both get a foothold. Brain scans . . . show that in a bilingual child all the sounds of its two languages share a single large map, a library of sounds from both languages (60).
Merzenich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate, and control plasticity to waste away. In response he has developed brain exercises for age-related cognitive decline—the common decline of memory, thinking, and processing speed (85).
Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, not learning. By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years (87).
To summarize the rest of the book, the author connects brain plasticity with love and personal relationships, imagination, rejuvenation, as well.
I concluded the reading of this book with great optimism. One’s brain does not have to wither and die with age. One can and should continue to learn. One may now approach the learning of things that he or she has always wanted to do but was afraid to try, with a totally new point of view, a renewed confidence. Doing so will increase the plasticity of the brain and thus strengthen it overall.
When I was young and would sometimes glance ahead, with fear and trepidation, to growing old, I often sought out older people for inspiration. The “seniors” I admired the most were the ones who continued to learn, continued to forge new pathways through life.
One woman in particular, Naomi, at age fifty-five—after finishing the rearing of her children and serving as caregiver to both her mother and mother-in-law—finished her BFA and moved to Taos, New Mexico. There she reinvented herself as a visual artist, who counted among her closest friends Agnes Martin, renowned abstract expressionist. Naomi lived well into her eighties, even outlived a daughter who died of cancer, before succumbing to the disease herself.
I still think of Naomi as a superb model for all of us. Whenever I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself, I think of Naomi and what she accomplished the last thirty years of her life. We must continue to learn, continue to forge for ourselves the lives that will most bring us satisfaction. By way of the Internet, by way of local schools and classes, we can learn almost anything we wish. It’s the least we can do for ourselves and for those who are to follow us. May they admire us as much as I’ve admired Naomi.