Brain Maintenance





Here is an excert from a 2005 FastCompany article that speaks to an interesting take on brain maintenance.

"This Is Your Brain on Change"

..."Are most of us like the fearful copier salespeople who dread disruption to their routines? Neuroscience, a field that has exploded with insight, has a lot more to say about changing people's behavior -- and its findings are guardedly optimistic.

Scientists used to believe that the brain became "hardwired" early in life and couldn't change later on.

Now researchers such as Dr. Michael Merzenich, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, say that the brain's ability to change -- its "plasticity" -- is lifelong.

If we can change, then why don't we? Merzenich has perspective on the issue since he's not only a leading neuroscientist but also an entrepreneur, the founder of two Bay Area startups.

Both use PC software to train people to overcome mental disabilities or diseases: Scientific Learning Corp. focuses on children who have trouble learning to read, and Posit Science Corp. is working on ways to prevent, stop, or reverse cognitive decline in older adults.

Merzenich starts by talking about rats. You can train a rat to have a new skill. The rat solves a puzzle, and you give it a food reward. After 100 times, the rat can solve the puzzle flawlessly.

After 200 times, it can remember how to solve it for nearly its lifetime. The rat has developed a habit.

It can perform the task automatically because its brain has changed.

Similarly, a person has thousands of habits -- such as how to use a pen -- that drive lasting changes in the brain.

For highly trained specialists, such as professional musicians, the changes actually show up on MRI scans.

Flute players, for instance, have especially large representations in their brains in the areas that control the fingers, tongue, and lips, Merzenich says. "They've distorted their brains."

Businesspeople, like flutists, are highly trained specialists, and they've distorted their brains, too. An older executive "has powers that a young person walking in the door doesn't have," says Merzenich.

He has lots of specialized skills and abilities. A specialist is a hard thing to create, and is valuable for a corporation, obviously, but specialization also instills an inherent "rigidity." The cumulative weight of experience makes it harder to change.

How, then, to overcome these factors? Merzenich says the key is keeping up the brain's machinery for learning. "When you're young, almost everything you do is behavior-based learning -- it's an incredibly powerful, plastic period," he says.

"What happens that becomes stultifying is you stop learning and you stop the machinery, so it starts dying."

Unless you work on it, brain fitness often begins declining at around age 30 for men, a bit later for women. "People mistake being active for continuous learning," Merzenich says.

"The machinery is only activated by learning. People think they're leading an interesting life when they haven't learned anything in 20 or 30 years. My suggestion is learn Spanish or the oboe."

Meanwhile, the leaders of a company need "a business strategy for continuous mental rejuvenation and new learning," he says.

Posit Science has a "fifth-day strategy," meaning that everyone spends one day a week working in a different discipline.

Software engineers try their hand at marketing. Designers get involved in business functions. "Everyone needs a new project instead of always being in a bin," Merzenich says. "A fifth-day strategy doesn't sacrifice your core ability but keeps you rejuvenated. In a company, you have to worry about rejuvenation at every level. So ideally you deliberately construct new challenges. For every individual, you need complex new learning.

Innovation comes about when people are enabled to use their full brains and intelligence instead of being put in boxes and controlled."

What happens if you don't work at mental rejuvenation? Merzenich says that people who live to 85 have a 50-50 chance of being senile. While the issue for heart patients is "change or die," the issue for everyone is "change or lose your mind." Mastering the ability to change isn't just a crucial strategy for business. It's a necessity for health. And it's possibly the one thing that's most worth learning. "

In my business we call this moving from victim to survivor to thriver, and we oftentimes use tools like psychodrama or experiential therapies to access the feelings stored in the amygdala which can support rigid nonproductive behaviors like getting arrested or abusing children.

When the feelings, most predominantly grief, are acknowledged and felt, sort of like opening a valve and letting the pressure off, old habits are no longer supported, frames are changed, and new habits, (it only took the rats 200 trials) are learned.

In AA, newbies are told to practice thoughts like "The Attitude is Gratitude" and "KISS" each time a resentment comes up, because the feeling associated with resentment is a major cause of relapse, especially because the feeling of one resentment will lead to a memory of a second resentment, and a rumination, or series fo resentful thoughts and ever intensifying feelings result.

After enough practice the alkie will have a habit formed leaning him or her toward the gratitude side of things.

But Merzenich says that we should learn a new language or a musical instrument to keep the neuroplastic and neurogenetic apparatus well oiled and functioning. I like the fact that he is not talking about Get Rich Quick, but is talking about the apparatus of learning.

I am trying out his Posit Science Auditory program and the Lumosity Tools first though, before I learn a new instrument.

But maybe I will try learning some Jerry Lee Lewis honky-tonk piano though.



Would You Share Something That You Are Grateful For?

When I was beginning my personal growth journey, a wise person told me that when I was feeling resentful or afraid or sad, that I should remember the phrase "gratitude is the attitude" when I was ready to feel better. That phrase has helped me feel better tens of thousands of times.

Would you share what you are most grateful for? Your story could be just what another person is searching for to renew themselves? Thanks.


Have a question and want to talk with a therapist? Call 815-316-2621 for Julie Logan, LCSW, RN. 7121 Windsor Lake Parkway, Loves Park, Illinois 61111 jlogan7264@myway.com

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Brain Neuroplasticity



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